Just Words

There has been a discussion in the comment section of Watts Up With That about the use of tow vs toe in the phrase "Toe the line". It means not exceeding bounds or limits.

A commenter there said:

Aaagh! I can't stand it any longer! The phrase is "toeing the line" i.e. "not stepping over the line" not 'towing the line." Nobody is pulling a line or rope anywhere - and even if such a phrase existed, it would not make sense in the context of the complaints here, that the mainstream media is failing to move forward with investigative journalism. Maxx is not the only one who uses the wrong word.
I dunno. I'm up on toe vs tow and I think it makes perfect sense.

Line = official position. As in "The current Communist Party Line on Global warming...."

So towing the line would mean supporting the official position through heavy labor. As in "haul on the bowline, we sang that melody...." (those of you of a "certain age" will get the reference).

Cross Posted at Power and Control

posted by Simon on 12.25.09 at 05:26 AM


Interesting. I had the same thought. I always thought the correct word was "toe", but recently thought that one place you toe the line was in a tug of war, where you start by toeing the line but end up towing the line.
But the one that really bugs me is "reign in" or "free reign".

Charlie   ·  December 25, 2009 9:36 AM

I may be completely off base. I had thought it came from the old bare-knuckle boxing matches. Fighters had to come up to a mark (toe the line) to prove they were still in the fight. Failure meant they were too beaten or fatigued.

Mark_0454   ·  December 25, 2009 12:25 PM

It is indeed "toe the line" with the explanation given over at Watts Up With That: You had to not just line up, but line up very precisely with your toes exactly on a line. Hence the implication of absolute obedience.

pst314   ·  December 25, 2009 12:34 PM

"Toe the line" is the origin of the phrase. Popular etymology has transformed it to "tow the line." I get an image of the Volga boatman from that corruption; I suspect a transference from the lyrics in "Old Man River:" "tow that barge, lift that bale."

Brett   ·  December 25, 2009 3:03 PM

It definitely comes from military jargon for inspections in rank. You had to line up with the toes of your shoes on an imaginary line with the rest of the rank (row). It means you'd better get even the smallest details right because we're checking. An alternative phrase is "toe the mark". Another common phrase to come from this is "pass muster" or "that won't pass muster". Muster is another word for morning assembly of troops for inspection (the ranking NCO would muster the troops for inspection). If there were deficiencies in your weapons cleanliness, personal grooming or uniform, you wouldn't pass muster. Today the phrase has been corrupted to "that doesn't cut the mustard".

Ken   ·  December 25, 2009 3:58 PM

No matter how one cuts the mustard, the two phrases don't mean the same thing. What Simon describes as the meaning for "tow the line" is better expressed by "carry water". "Tow the line" really doesn't have much in common with "carry water".

"Cut the mustard" does not mean the same thing as "passing muster" either, and it's not likely derived from that phrase.

When I read posts or comments that confuse these phrases, I question the precision of thought given. This is entirely different from the common online typos (its - it's, who's - whose, their - there - they're).

Those are mostly a matter of muscle memory overtaking intention. Annoying, but not usually pertinent to meaning. There is validity to the argument that misusing the other phrases is the same. Perhaps, sometimes.

Other misused phrases that make me question the thought behind the writing are:

make due for make do;

intensive purposes for intents and purposes;

reign for rein (mentioned above, and might fall into the typo category);

mute point for moot point;

peaks interest for piques interest;

And on and on. The bottom line is that clear thinking and clarity in communication require knowing the meaning of the words and phrases used.

And... yep, this touched on one of my pet peeves :-)

Donna B.   ·  December 25, 2009 7:01 PM

can anyone explain, "Draggin' the line?"

Mark_0454   ·  December 25, 2009 8:08 PM

Two schools of thought on this one, historically.

The first places the root use of the phrase in pre-revolutionary Kingstown, where the would-be subversives became adept at disguising their homemade explosive devices as common foodstuffs. One day, the police had surrounded one small cell's home base, from which periodic small-arms fire and thrown cutlery were issuing in a rather hopeless attempt to keep out the hated government forces. The cell's small cache of grenade-like devices had been made to resemble common fruits, and then placed innocently throughout the hut, but the bomb-makers had neglected to inform anyone else in the group of this fact. As the police approached, one of the bomb-makers saw a fellow cell member crouched next to a window watching the advance, with a large bowl of fruit on the table upon which he leaned. Not realizing that the watcher didn't know that some of the fruit was actually weaponry, the bomb-maker began yelling to him "Tro da lime, tro da lime . . .!!" The watcher snapped his head back to see who was calling to him, and then, as might be expected, tossed one of the limes to him. Once the wreckage was cleared and the movement disbanded, the now-mangled phrase became a derisive reminder that, no matter what our intentions might be, ignorance usually causes us to act in furtherance of established authority.

The second line of thought holds, as does Charlie above, that the phrase arose in early English fighting matches, in which the fighters had to signal their ability to continue at the start of each round by approaching, and then standing at, a specific spot upon command. It was the willingness and ability to follow that specific command that translated into the meaning of the phrase as we understand it today.

bobby b   ·  December 27, 2009 11:19 AM

Anyone who thinks the proper expression is 'tow the line' has another think coming.

ThomasD   ·  December 27, 2009 4:47 PM


It all depends on what you are trying to express.

M. Simon   ·  December 27, 2009 11:45 PM

If you want to be, I dunno, "correct", rather than "making stuff up", use "toe the line" or "toe the mark". The dictionary here says the phrase means "to adhere to doctrines or rules conscientiously; conform."

"Popular etymology" also substitutes "would of" for "would've" (i.e. "would have"). A popular misspelling based on pronunciation is not a good excuse for incorrect usage. Kinda makes you look dumb, I have to say. Or do I have another thing coming?

Hazy Dave   ·  December 29, 2009 10:57 AM


English has no fixed rules. New phrases are coined all the time. Just because they sound similar to other phrases does not discredit them.

The French have language police. English has no such organization to keep the language pure.

I like "tow the line" for some uses because of its punning nature. YMMV.

M. Simon   ·  December 29, 2009 11:02 AM

One may tow a barge with the assistance of a line, but one can never tow a line.

Toe the line it is.

Bill Johnson   ·  January 1, 2010 3:34 PM


Have you never heard of mixing metaphors?

I kind of like it because of the pun nature of the phrase.

Besides there is a long history in English of words and phrases that are "incorrect" becoming a part of the language.

It amuses me.

M. Simon   ·  January 1, 2010 4:08 PM

And if you want to have even more fun you could say that "tow the line" is a synonym for "carry water".

M. Simon   ·  January 1, 2010 4:11 PM

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