Answering my own questions since 2001

Toe the Line

Toe the line – it’s often written as “tow the line”, but this is incorrect. It is easy to understand where the confusion came from, particularly when the phrase is combined with an entity, as in “toe the company line” or “toe the party line”. It is easy to visualize a poor wretch toiling with the company rope over his shoulder.

The phrase is clearly “toe”, however, and the origin is straightforward. It refers to stepping up and putting your toe on a starting line. It’s related to another phrase, “up to scratch”, discussed below.

“Toe the line” has become corrupted from its original meaning. Now, when you hear of someone “toeing the line”, you tend to think of someone brought to heel (see here for an example), of someone staying within prescribed behaviour, rather than the original meaning of someone stepping up to a challenge. This original sense is still maintained in the phrase “toe the mark”, a more British saying, which retains the feeling of someone preparing for a contest (at least to my ear, it does.)

Up to scratch – The origin of this phrase is related to “toe the line”. In early prizefighting, a mark would be scratched in the dirt, and the fighters would each place a toe on the line, or “scratch”. They would then attempt to drive the opponent off the mark with their fists. Such fighting clearly requires a great deal of physical courage and endurance, and thus it was admirable to be “up to scratch”.

Room to swing a cat – this one puzzled me when I was young. Why would anyone need room to swing a cat? I envisioned someone taking a housecat and swinging it around by the tail. This makes no sense, and is cruel to boot.

I have learned since that the origin is nautical, and refers to the ‘cat’ or ‘cat-o-nine-tails’ with which errant sailors would be flogged. Not having room to swing a cat meant not having room to enforce discipline. And, yes, it’s cruel too.

I need to clarify: in my previous post on words, I said that the I before E rule was a pet peeve. What I meant was that I heartily dislike the I before E rule. I think it a pox and a vexation. English users everywhere should stand up (or, rather, sit down) and reject it wholesale. Why can’t we all just agree that ‘ei’ is pronounced ‘ay’ and ‘ie’ is pronounced ‘ee’?

8 Responses to “Toe the Line”

  1. Rog

    Okay, hang on. I’m pretty certain that “toe/tow the line” has a dual etymology, both with a nautical background. Like many such phrases, the meaning has changed over time, giving it multiple connotations.

    I don’t doubt that the original was likely “toe”, since that form of punishment (making a sailor stand on deck for long periods of time) is near ancient though undoubtably still in use today.

    “Tow the line”, however, is closer to the meaning which people usually are aiming for: to tow in a rope, usually while docking smaller vessels. It implies taking up an open task, doing your share, etc.. as opposed to punishment for a lack of duty.

    If you’ve ever spent much time on the water, you’ve no doubt heard it both ways.

    As for room to swing a cat, I thought that was obvious, but I suppose to some of us more than others. ;)

    I don’t see how floggers are exclusively nautical however?!? I’d be curious to know how it’s nautical related, the only thing I can think of is the lack of space on most ships, but certainly not on the deck, so I still don’t get it.

    Etymology can be both fascinating and academic, especially when applied to whole phrases instead of singular words. Some cases are definitely more suited to small talk at parties (or blogs, heh) than any attempts to ‘correct’ usage. The English language is too fluid to always hold rigorously to original intended meanings.

  2. Darren James Harkness

    The ei=’ay’ / ie=’ee’ rule doesn’t always apply either. Think of the word sieve for example; it’s pronounced ‘sihve’, not ‘seeve’… also conceive, which is pronounced ‘con*seeve’, not ‘con*sayve’

  3. Dean

    Rog: As hard as it is to believe, the evidence that I have seen is that it is ‘toe the line’, and that ‘tow’ is a spurious back-formation. As I said, it’s easy to understand why it would be made.

    I will post some references if you like.

    In nautical terms, I don’t believe that ‘tow’ goes with ‘line’. As I understand it, a ‘line’ is a rope of indiscriminate purpose that is intended for use by hand. Sailors had specific words for ropes that had specific uses: sheets, shrouds, cables, and braces, for example. A sailor knows instantly what you mean when you use one of those words, and when you say ‘tow’ he thinks ‘cable’. Therefore, a nautical derivation of ‘tow the line’ seems very unlikely to me. A sailor tows with a cable, not a line.

    As for ‘cat’, I believe that it was the naval word for a cruel instrument. I do not recall reading the word ‘cat’ used in other than a naval context. The army may have had its own word, or they may have used a different sort of instrument.

    However, I agree with you. The etymology of these things is fascinating.

  4. d

    Cat? A naval term?

    *falls over*

    I’ve heard and used the term cat-o-nine-tails in a whole range of situations, none of which involve the ocean. The roots of things are sometimes stranger than I would ever imagine.

  5. martin g

    Well I’ll be jiggered! It’s “Toe the line” you bunch of scurvy knaves! You deserve a dozen licks o’ the cat I’ll be bound. YaaaaaaaR!

    p.s There’s no such word as ‘undoubtably’ , that’s another tens licks fellow me lad . . .

  6. Denise

    Try to have a go at explaining the lyrics of ‘Tow The Line’ – a song by Nick Drake. One is not sure whether this was meant to be written this way or not. He was at Marlbourough College and Cambridge, so obviously he’d know the right way to write it. But what would be meant in this then?

    People are speculating about whether he meant that his old producer was back and that if he’d be willing to have a go with him again on the musicmarket then maybe they could ‘make it’… Pull it off, so to say…

    This day is the day that we rise or we fall
    This night is the night that we win or lose all
    This time is the time that we wait for a while
    This year is the year that we wait with a smile

    If you call, we will follow
    If you show us we can tow the line

    And now that you’re here you can show me the way
    Now that you’re here we can try make it pay
    For while you were gone it was hard it was cold
    While you were gone we were time we were old

    If you call we will follow
    If you show us we can tow the line

    ©Nick Drake

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