Toe the line

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"Toe the line" is an idiomatic expression meaning either to conform to a rule or standard, or to stand in formation along a line. Other phrases which were once used in the early 1800s and have the same meaning were "toe the mark" and "toe the plank".


Toeing the Line, Byam Shaw

The expression has disputed origins, though the two earliest known appearances in print are from the British Army, and the third from the Royal Navy. Those suggested are from public school, the armed services, Bare Knuckle Boxing, or possibly the British House of Commons.

Armed services[edit]

In the earliest known appearance of the phrase in print, The Army Regulator, 1738, an officer forming ranks of soldiers says: "Silence you dogs, toe the line...".[1]

The phrase next appeared in 1775's An Easy Plan of Discipline for a Militia, in which parading soldiers are instructed to "...bring their toes to the line c g, at the second step they toe the line c h..." [2]

The phrase appeared as a naval term in 1831, describing events of 1803: "..on the quarter deck we were arranged in a line, each with his toes at the edge of a plank..." to be subjected to "scoldings technically called 'toe-the-line' matches.' " [3]

The phrase "toeing a line" appeared in Captain Maryatt's story "Poor Jack" which was published in several American newspapers in 1841. It refers to the crew of a ship being marshaled and inspected by a Lieutenant.[4]

The most likely origin of the term goes back to the wooden decked ships of the Royal Navy during the late 17th or early 18th century. Barefooted seamen had to stand at attention for inspection and had to line up on deck along the seams of the wooden planks, hence to "toe the line".[5] The first mention of this use in literature stems from a story about navy life widely published in 1831 and written by Captain Basil Hall RN.[6] Hall served in the Royal Navy from 1802.

On some military parade-grounds there are white lines marked, along which soldiers form up, with their toes just touching the line.


It is common practice in many long-established schools for roll-call to be taken twice a day, at which the pupils line up with their toes exactly along a particular line on the floor, while their names are called out for them to respond to, indicating their presence.[citation needed]

Reference to toeing the line in schools appeared in 1845: "...the class formed themselves, 'toed the line'...” [7]

House of Commons[edit]

It is commonly and erroneously thought that its origins lie in the British House of Commons where sword-strapped members were instructed to stand behind lines that were two sword-lengths apart from their political rivals in order to restore decorum. However, there is no record of a time when Members of Parliament were allowed to bring swords into the Chamber. Historically, only the Serjeant at Arms carries a sword as a symbol of his role in Parliament. There are loops of pink ribbon in the Members' cloakroom for MPs to hang up their swords before entering the Chamber to this very day as a result of this rule. In fact, there were not any lines in the Chamber in the days that gentlemen carried swords.[8]

Boundary line[edit]

A slightly different use of the term was found in an 1816 magazine, which stated, The Thalweg of the Rhine shall toe the line of separation between France and the German States; ....[9] The meaning in this context was marked the line of separation.

An earlier 1813 publication had used the term toe the mark which had the same meaning as toe the line's modern usage, where the author wrote He began to think it was high time to toe the mark.[10] An 1828 publication also used toe the plank with a similar meaning.[11]

Other suggested origins[edit]

Over the years the term has been attributed to sports, including toeing the starting line in track events and toeing a center line in boxing, where boxers were instructed to line up on either side of to start a match. However, the earlier boxing term was toeing the scratch, referring to a scratch mark on the floor. One of the earliest references related to an English prize fight in 1840.[12]

Byam Shaw's painting Toeing the Line, depicting a scene at Ascot, alludes to it being a term used in horse racing.

Misspelling as "tow the line"[edit]

"Toe the line" is often misspelled "tow the line", substituting a familiar verb "tow" for the unfamiliar verbal use of "toe." "Tow" does not accord with any of the proposed etymologies, so "tow the line" is a linguistic eggcorn.[13][14]

Modern usage[edit]

Its modern-day use includes the context of partisan or factional politics, as in "He's toeing the party line", the context of athletics where it describes runners poised at the starting line, and in the context of behavior where the miscreant is expected to "toe the line". The first published use in a political context was in March 1826, where Willie Mangum of the United States House of Representatives proposed that "every member might 'toe the mark'."[15] The behavioral use also stems from around that time.

The term continues to be used in the context of cross-country and track and field running, although sometimes also symbolically in bicycle races to be at one's mark along the starting line before a race.[16][17][18]

Besides its literal use in middle and long-distance running, the term is still in literal use in the military, particularly the US Army. Some barracks have two solid lines, each approximately three inches wide and placed five feet apart, either taped or painted, running down the center of the entire length of their floor. The soldiers are ordered to "toe the line". At this command they cease their activities and line up with their toes on the line.[19]

In the game of darts, many places where it is played have a line marked on the floor that shows the closest point that the player may stand when launching darts at the dartboard.

In 1946 the writer George Orwell explicitly disparaged the idiomatic use of the phrase as an example of "worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves."[20]

The expression is used in a Beatles song—"Trying just to make you toe the line" in 1965's "Run for Your Life"—and is the basis for Rocky Burnette's 1980 hit song, "Tired of Toein' the Line". It is also mentioned in the song "Walk A Thin Line" by Lindsey Buckingham on the 1979 album "Tusk" by Fleetwood Mac.[citation needed]


  1. ^ RAILTON, John (October 5, 1738). "The Army Regulator; Or, the Military Adventures of Mr John Railton; Giving an Account of His Particular Services in the Horse Grenadiers, the Dragoons, the Foot, and the Train of Artillery". W. Warner – via Google Books.
  2. ^ Pickering, Timothy (October 5, 1775). An Easy Plan of Discipline for a Militia. Samuel and Ebenezer Hall. ISBN 9780608406763 – via Google Books.
  3. ^ "The British Critic and Quarterly Theological Review". F. and C. Rivington. October 5, 1831 – via Google Books.
  4. ^ "From Captain Maryatt's "Poor Jack". Old Duty (1841)". The Pittsfield Sun. August 26, 1841. p. 1. Retrieved February 24, 2021.
  5. ^ "Nautical Terms and Phrases... Their Meaning and Origin". Archived from the original on July 3, 1998. Retrieved January 30, 2017.
  6. ^ "Fragments of Voyages and Travels" (reprinted from the London Literary Gazette and written by Captain Basil Hall RN), /The Atheneum - Fourth Series, Volume 1 - April to October 1831, Kane & Co, Boston, page 188
  7. ^ "The Christian Observer". Hatchard and Company. October 5, 1843 – via Google Books.
  8. ^ Robert Rogers and Rhodri Walters, How Parliament Works, 6th ed (Longman, 2006), p. 14 and Robert Rogers, Order! Order!: A Parliamentary Miscellany (London: JR Books, 2009), p. 27
  9. ^ "State of public affairs in December", The Monthly magazine, Number 277 Volume 40, R Phillips, January 1, 1816, page 548
  10. ^ The Diverting History of John Bull and Brother Jonathan, 1813, by "Hector Bull-Us" - known to his family and friends as James Paulding
  11. ^ Cogitations; Henry James Finn, Moses Whitney, James William Miller, Oliver C. Wyman; Whimswhams, A K Newman and Co, London, page 155
  12. ^ "Fight between Nick Ward and Deaf Burke for £50 a side", Editor of Bell's Life in London, Fights for the Championship and other Celebrated Prize Fights, Bell's Life, London, 1855, page 155
  13. ^ Waigl, Chris. "toe » tow". The Eggcorn Database. Retrieved April 28, 2018.
  14. ^ Quinion, Michael. "Toe the line". World Wide Words. Retrieved April 28, 2018.
  15. ^ Congress - March 18, 1826, Niles' Weekly Register, H Niles, March to September 1826 Volume VI - Third Series, Baltimore, page 48
  16. ^ Stracher, Cameron (2013). Kings of the Road. ISBN 9780547773964 – via Book Depository.
  17. ^ Max, Kevin (March 1, 2013). "Alberto Salazar and the Nike Oregon Project". 1859. Archived from the original on June 7, 2013.
  18. ^ "Lance Armstrong on Twitter".
  19. ^ A Parallel of Words, Dr Anthony Lightfoot. Authorhouse, 2010, page 457, ISBN 978 1 4520 3779 0
  20. ^ Politics and the English Language, George Orwell, 1946

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