Toe the line

The idiom is toe the line, not tow the line. The phrase derives from track-and-field events in which athletes are required to place a foot on a starting line and wait for the signal to go. Race officials used to shout “Toe the line!” where now they shout “On your marks!” Since entering the language, the idiom has developed to mean do what is expected or act according to someone else’s rules or expectations.


These days, he suggested, you’ve either got to toe the line or get out. [Newsweek]

It is this sort of hubris, the thinking that we can ignore world superpowers who don’t toe the line, that will be dangerous to our nation in years to come.  [The Bradenton Times]

Michaud thinks the U.S. should threaten to impose tarriffs on Chinese imports if Beijing doesn’t toe the line. [MPBN News]

10 thoughts on “Toe the line”

  1. I knew it was “toe the line”, though I surmised its etymology was closer to actors having the “toe their marks”.

    The viable explanation I’ve heard for “Tow the line” is to cooperate, as in “We need to tow the line and get this done”.

  2. Should you tour the House of Parliament in London, you will be told the expression comes from the white border on the floor, behind which all members must stand, even during heated debates, lest they become over-excited and step over the boundary, after which they will be told to ‘Toe the Line’.

  3. To “toe the line” was used as punishment aboard ships. Usually meant for a deckhand that messed up — he was made to stand at attention for an amount of time his superiors sought fit, in every type of weather. He had to “toe the line” until he was dismissed.

    It was also an order to the crew to come to formation with their toes on one of the deck seams so that they stood in a straight line.

    “Toeing the line” is a bad thing, you don’t want to do it!

  4. Ooh, hang on — regardless of its origin, I have always been under the impression that ‘toeing the line’ implies that a person is as close to the line as they can be without crossing it — similar to the phrase ‘walking on thin ice.’ As in, one step further and they will have crossed the line. I assumed the origin came from track and field, but the way I use the phrase is different than what you describe here. Am I alone in this? Or, if I’m not alone, am I just plain wrong?

    • No, that was my innate understanding of it too. That to toe the line either meant, depending on context and sentiment, that you were either in compliance or threatening to “cross the line” without having yet crossed the line. “You’re toeing the line there, buddy,” is clearly the latter.


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