toe » tow

Chiefly in:   tow the line

Classification: English – nearly mainstream

Spotted in the wild:

  • Rice urged other world leaders to join Washington’s campaign to get “states that continue to support rejectionists and terrorists (to) stop doing that,” while dangling the prospect of further sanctions against Syria if it failed to tow the line. (Reuters, February 8, 2005)
  • Conservative County councillors Brian Gadd and Ron Dyason spoke of their dislike of the scheme and pledged to fight against it, rather than tow the party line. (Bexhill Today, 11 February 2005)
  • Their one-sided, blatant attempts to pressure local cable companies were unethically touted as news on their local broadcasts, with “stories” that were so self-serving I felt pity for the anchors and reporters forced to tow the company line. (link)
  • Lesi is towing the line in Kotobalavu’s direction in support of the 2000 coup. (Fiji Times, February 06, 2005)

Analyzed or reported by:

_Tow the line_ may well be one of the reshapings that will soon be considered acceptable in standard English. It is so common that it is easier to find salient examples in journalistic writing than on the general-purpose web.

Michael Quinion at Word Wide Words explains the original form, _toe the line_:

> Toe the line is the survivor of a set of phrases that were common in the nineteenth century; others were toe the mark, toe the scratch, toe the crack, or toe the trig. In every case, the image was that of men lining up with the tips of their toes touching some line. They might be on parade, or preparing to undertake some task, or in readiness for a race or fight.

The “lining up for a race or fight” metaphor has been obscured, and a new, nautical imagery has been grafted on the expression, thus changing the spelling. In particular when a blend with compounds like _party line_ occurs, the original metaphor slips farther into the background: a party line is not the kind of line that can be toed. And then it is but a step towards towing the line in a particular direction.

An example for the ideas that underpin the semantic reshaping that has taken place is provided in this commentary, on a blog, by a person named 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.

A very convincing argument, but pure invention, without any foundation in the history of English.

(See also tow » toe.)

| link | entered by Chris Waigl, 2005/02/11 |


  1. 1

    Commentary by Anthony Argyriou , 2005/03/29 at 9:34 am

    George Orwell wrote about this eggcorn in Politics and the English Language.

  2. 2

    Commentary by alan moorman , 2005/10/18 at 10:40 pm

    In this context, “toe” does not seem to equate “tow”.

    In my understanding:

    To toe the line is to step to the line prepared to do your duty in an exemplary fashion.

    To tow the line means just to go along with the party line, or whatever.

    I with the “tow” version had never occurred, because it has diluted and/or replaced the meaning of the original, which I thought was an effective and more meaningful phrase.

    Thank you for your kind attention,

    Alan Moorman

  3. 3

    Commentary by tom plichta , 2005/11/07 at 10:23 pm

    Spent 27 years in the Navy.

    I’ve “taken the slack out of ” a line
    I’ve had to “heave around on” a line
    I’ve “made fast” a line

    I have “towed” a ship
    And I’ve “towed” a target astern of the ship

    But I’ve never “towed” a line

  4. 4

    Commentary by Tomazo , 2006/03/03 at 5:25 am

    I thought this vernacular phrase originated during construction and operation of the Erie Canal, completed in 1825, and it referred to the horses, which “TOWED THE LINE” (is in tow a rope) used to pull the loaded barges (first of dirt, then of goods) along the canal. Small trains later replaced the horses until eventually, the economics preferred trains over barges and the canal system served only local markets which trains did not serve. Does anyone have a date of earliest recorded use for “toe the line”? If it is not older than 1825, perhaps “TOW THE LINE” is the proper phrase.

  5. 5

    Commentary by Chris Waigl , 2006/03/03 at 8:36 am

    The reference to towing boats — a practice that is certainly much older than the 19th century — sounds too much like a folk etymology to me. (Why don’t we have “tow the boat”, “tow the load” and similar expressions). In any case, the Michael Quinion quote above continues:

    The earliest recorded form is dated 1813, in a book by Hector Bull-Us (a pseudonym, you will not be surprised to hear, in this case of James Kirke Paulding) with the title The Diverting History of John Bull and Brother Jonathan. This already had the modern figurative sense of conforming to the usual standards or rules: “He began to think it was high time to toe the mark”. Many early examples are from the British Navy, which is where it may have originated.

    Do you have an actual reference for 1825? Of course, given that “toe the X” is attested earlier, 1825 could be the age of the eggcorn.

  6. 6

    Commentary by e , 2006/03/08 at 2:20 pm

    we do have “tote that barge”, andsince tote is usually connotes carrying, it wouldn’t make sense to carry a rather than tow it..

  7. 7

    Commentary by Dr. R. Somerville , 2006/05/22 at 1:53 am

    “tote that line” I believe refers to pulling a line over your shoulder which is attached to a barge in order to pull it against the current of a river.

  8. 8

    Commentary by David Romano , 2006/05/25 at 6:18 am

    Hmmm, I just saw a use of this that made me pause: it’s used in the passive voice. I hadn’t thought of that possibility before, since I considered it more of an idiom, and didn’t think of any other idiom that changes voice like that. For instance (from two years ago in Semantics), “He kicked the bucket” is quite different from “The bucket was kicked by him”. Does anyone know if this happen for other eggcorns then?

  9. 9

    Commentary by Chris Waigl , 2006/05/25 at 7:27 am

    @David: Indeed, that’s an intersting usage. Here’s the quote — the context is the never-ending Perl vs PHP controversy. Emphasis mine:

    > Use what works. **If the company line is towed by PHP** but it’s an otherwise decent job, learn PHP. If you feel dirty using PHP, spend some time trying to convert parts of the application to perl or use perl in other places to make hard tasks easier.

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