Oct 05 2009

The Spinstitute for Glossological Research

Towing the line
The one on the right really needs her feet trimmed. [Source]

Toe the line vs. tow the line.

Spinster aunts tend to use the former to connote a gesture of defiance, as in scraping a line in the sand with the toe of your Birkenstock and declaring to your opponent “I pity the fool who crosses this line I have just toed!”

The latter, on the other hand, somewhat pejoratively indicates the collaboration of a lackey, minion, middle-manager, or other low-ranking person with a larger entity, e.g. the phrase  “tow the company line.” It is believed to be a metaphor of marine origin, likening the tow-er to a horse towing a barge up the Thames, or, even more tragically, a tugboat pulling a Carnival Cruiser of partying middle-managers into Cabo.



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  1. hero

    One etymology (entymology? if it bugs you?) of the phrase has to do with standing in a very straight (not gay) line, with toes just grazing but not crossing same. Having to do with EXACTNESS in obedience, presumably to the P.

    I blames it, I blames it.

  2. hero

    And seriously, how does poor Elvisina up there even walk without the pedi you so astutely recommend?

  3. CLD

    Jill, what part of her feet need trimming, how is it done, and why? I ask because I honestly wish to know. It’s technically on-topic, no?

    I love finding out the minutia with regard to equestrian care.

  4. rootlesscosmo

    has to do with standing in a very straight (not gay) line, with toes just grazing but not crossing same. Having to do with EXACTNESS in obedience, presumably to the P.

    That’s similar to the one I learned–subordinates awaiting inspection, and possible punishment, by superiors had to keep their toes on a line rather than shrinking back in fear.

  5. Orange

    “Tows the line”? No. No, no, no. That’s an eggcorn. (http://eggcorns.lascribe.net/english/72/tow/) It’s a misinterpretation of “toe the line,” which has the derivation hero shared. You can “tow the line” if you’re pulling a rope, but it’s not an established phrase in its own right. People use it when they mean the original meaning of “toe the line.”

    The Spinster Aunt line-toeing is more like the George H.W. Bush “draw a line in the sand,” and that isn’t what “toe the line” means to, well, the rest of us.

  6. Carolyn

    The horses aren’t towing the line, they’re towing the barge.

  7. DJM

    According to World Wide Words site (my goto on this sort of question regarding English usages) toe the line comes from preparing for a race or fight, and by extension obeying the rules which is the way I use the phrase. I would draw a line in the sand with the heel of my boot rather than the toe.
    (no blame this time).

  8. Pellegrina

    In my own idiolect, toe has all the pejorative connotations assigned above to tow, as in a minion slavishly adhering to the party line of superiors by walking step by step along it, and tow is a variant spelling caused by the metaphor to which it is attributed by the spinster aunt.

  9. yttik

    Generally “tow the line” is incorrect usage, but I now dispute my own opinion. Whether the author’s intent or not, “tow the line” was recently used in a political discussion to explain what the media often does for a political party’s agenda, as in towing a barge full of crap upriver.

  10. jezebella

    I’m with Orange on this one.

  11. Notorious Ph.D.

    I concur with you, but have a different image: like DJM, putting your toe to the starting line of a race (as opposed to “going over the line,” which would be a violation of rules). Having your toe right on that line shows that you’d just love to go over it, but you won’t, out of respect for the rules.

  12. sonia

    Ditto. I always thought it was t-o-e the line, as in a line of soldiers that all had to be in step with their toes at the same point. so “toe-ing” the line was like lining up with everyone else. I percieve the t-o-w version as misspelling. but I dig your definitions.

  13. Chas S. Clifton

    You are right about “toe the line.” I think it goes back to the 18th and 19th-century days of outdoor bare-knuckle boxing matches

    The second usage, which I wish I had never heard, e.g. “tow the company line” is complete folk etymology, based on confusion between the first usage and the “party line” in the political sense.

    Hope you’re getting some rain at your place now.

  14. Saurs

    “Tow the line” strikes me as a hyper-correction or an example of counter-intuition getting the best of the speaker, on par with “you and I” in the accusative or “irregardless” in any usage.

    To “toe the line” has never indicated (heretofore, anyway) defiance to some perceived status quo, but conformity to that status quo. I’m toeing some dude’s/party’s/platform’s line ‘cos otherwise there will be hell to pay or I won’t get my requisite supply of CoolWhip.

  15. Saurs

    On second thought, “toe the line” needn’t necessarily indicate subservience. If, for example, I’m a non-conformist at heart, but I don’t want to suffer the consequences of deviating too far from the norm, I’ll toe the line, gently getting my (unique and deviant) point across without being too obvious about it. I think that’s as far as the meaning of the phrase can be legitimately stretched, however.

  16. FyrDrakken

    Yeah, when I hear the phrase “toe the line,” my mental image is of the oft-repeated scene in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin books, of the weekly ship inspection with all the various crewmembers lining up on deck, toes to a particular deck seam, obedient and correct, orderly and submissive.

  17. Jill

    “Tows the line”? No. No, no, no.

    Orange, I knew I could count on you for level-headed analysis. Thanks!

  18. Orange

    And with nary an ellipsis!

    I was forced to retreat here after encountering the Scary Scolopendra (sp?) leg in the newer post. I couldn’t read the post. Too scary! The mea culpa with which the post began did not prepare me for the horrors that lurked below! *fanning self (case of the vapors)*

  19. Rumblelizard

    The correct expression is toe the line. However, you can pull on the towline to tow the barge.

  20. LisaB

    Ok, what about this: Increasingly I hear “let’s touch bases later today” — but shouldn’t we be touching just one “base”?

  21. Jill

    “Let’s touch bases later today” means “let’s play baseball later today.”

  22. slythwolf

    The one on the right really needs her feet trimmed.

    You are not wrong. That looks kinda painful.

  23. delagar

    I know I am probably too late to this conversation & no one will be reading this, but I teach History of the English Language (HEL, as my students fondly, I am sure, call it), and this very question arose a few semesters ago. I did some research. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, both “tow the line” and “toe the line” are correct variants of the same idiom. These are known as folk etymologies, meaning we all have these notions of what the phrases mean, which we invent upon hearing them. Since both “tow the line” and “toe the line” make sense in the context, both are, therefore, perfectly correct.

    See also “pillar of the community” and its local (local to the Ozark hills, where I teach) variant “pillow of the community,” which cracks my students up when I give it as an example. On the other hand, given that in the Ozark hills pillow and similar words, like window and meadow are pronounced not with the ending -ow but with the ending -er, pillow, as you can see, sounds like piller.

    And there you are.

    This ends the lecture.


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