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"Toe the line" is an idiomatic expression meaning to conform to a rule or a standard. Phrases which were once used in the early 1800s and have the same meaning were toe the mark and toe the plank.
The expression has disputed origins. Those suggested are from "public school", the armed Srvices or the House of Commons.
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 the names are called out for them to respond to indicate their presence.
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.
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". 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. 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
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; … 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. An 1828 publication also used "toe the plank" with a similar meaning.
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 which boxers were instructed to line up on either side of to start a match. However the earlier boxing term was toeing the scratch, a scratch mark on the floor. One of the earliest references related to an English prize fight in 1840.
Byan Shaw's painting of Toeing the line at Ascot also alludes to it being a term used in horse racing.
In modern usage, it appears both in the context of partisan or factional politics, as in, "He's toeing the party line" and in the context of behavior where the miscreant is expected to "toe the line". The first published use in the political context was in March 1826 where Willie Mangum of the United State House of Representatives proposed that every member might "toe the mark".. The behavioral use also stems from around that time.
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 barracks' 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.
The primary connotation of toe the line is “To adhere to rules or doctrines conscientiously; conform” (American Heritage), “To conform to a rule or standard” (Oxford).
The most commonly cited source for a sports origin etymology is foot-racing, where the competitors must keep their feet behind a "line" or on a "mark" at the start of the race, as in "On your mark, get set, go!". Another is boxing, where opponents were compelled by a referee's command, "Toe the line!", to stand toe to toe across from one another to start a match.
Cricket: To "toe the line" referred to a bowler "no-balling", by delivering the ball with his toe over the "popping crease" as the ball was delivered (i.e. left his "bowling hand"). This "Law" has now been altered to the "front-foot Law."
For some reason the term became "towing" the line in some publications, but this is either a spelling mistake or mistaken identity - ignorance, which can be cured.
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