Q&A: “Toe the line” or “tow the line”?

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're toe jamming…

Q: Hi AWC, can you help clear up whether the saying is “tow the line” or “toe the line”?

A: It’s “toe the line” – meaning to conform or accept authority. 

Q: But then why do I often see “tow the line” everywhere?

A: Probably for the same reason you see signs outside fruit shops selling “banana’s and apple’s for 99c/kilo”. 

Q: Wow, that’s actually really cheap for this time of year.

A: Ignore the price. Our point is that, much like the misplaced apostrophe that enjoys taunting purists by dressing up as a plural, sometimes sayings are used incorrectly too.

Q: Sure, okay. But even when you consider the meaning of “toe the line”, the idea of “towing a line” still makes more sense.

A: How many times do we have to tell you that “it makes more sense” is NEVER a logical argument when dealing with phrases and idioms? They care not for our rules – they are the rock stars of the English language.

Q: My uncle Geoffrey was a rock star back in the 1970s – he used to tour all the big venues. Red Rocks…Grand Canyon…Hawaii. 

A: Wow, sounds like quite a life.

Q: Sure was. He was highly regarded in the geological community.

A: Um. Okay, so anyway… While “towing the line” may sound like you’re obeying an order by pulling a rope, the phrase actually has everything to do with toes.

Q: So where do the toes come in?

A: There are a few competing theories, but the first one comes from boats.

Q: You’re doing a terrible job of disregarding “towing” if you’re now claiming it came from boats!

A: Hear us out. Back in the early 1800s, the Royal Navy would require its seamen to stand to attention barefoot on the wooden deck – their toes along the line of the timber. It was also known as “toeing the mark”.

Q: So it was conceived with seamen!

A: Perhaps. The army may have had soldiers putting THEIR toes on lines in the late 1700s. And another theory was linked to the beginning of a foot race, when runners would step up to the line – “toe the line” if you will.

Q: As in “on/take your marks” used today?

A: Exactly. In fact, there were a number of early-1800s phrases that centred on the toe – such as “toe the mark” (again with boats), “toe the scratch” (prize fighting) and “toe the crack” (a mark on the floor). “Line” and occasionally “mark” are the only ones to endure.

Q: Hmmph. It doesn’t help that lines are made to be towed. It’s a seriously ropey argument.

A: Absolutely. We’re knot happy about it.

Q: Please don’t piggyback on my joke.

A: Sorry. It also doesn’t help that most people think of “tow” as a far more common verb than “toe”. 

Q: True. And what about politicians? Do they “toe” the party line?

A: Yes, it’s the same spelling and the idea of doing so goes right back to the 1830s.

Q: My grandmother used to talk about her party line and how she would listen in on her neighbours phone calls. Is this related?

A: Telephone party lines – where a phone line was shared – has nothing to do with any of this. 

Q: Can you imagine sharing a smartphone with someone? How would messaging even work? It was such a different time…

A: Um, sure. So, anything else?

Q: Well, I realise now that the correct phrase is “toe the line” for all the reasons above.

A: Great.

Q: But… can you please tell me about “tug of war” anyway? It’s kind of what I thought we’d be talking about today… I even chose that nice silhouette photo.

A:  Yes, we can see that. Okay, so the idea of a rope pulling contest goes back centuries and across many cultures. But the actual phrase “tug of war” didn’t appear until the 1670s – and originally it was just a figurative term to describe a real tough struggle. It wasn’t until 1876 that it was first used to name the athletic event. It was even an Olympic sport up until 1920.

Q: Oh really? So who have been the defending gold medallists for the past century?

A: Great Britain beat Netherlands in the 1920 gold medal match, 2-0. 

Q: Huzzah! Should’ve known that the Brits would be champs at “towing the line”!

A: Yep, but remember that for everything non-war-tugging related, the phrase relating to following orders is “toe the line”. That’s T-O-E.

Q: Got it. Thanks for keeping us on our toes! Now, tell me again about that cheap fruit on sale…

Do you have a question you’d like us to explore? Email it to us today!


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