Final Word

Getting members to come into line and toe the line

Toe the line.jpg

When the South African parliament recently adopted new rules to get its members to ‘toe the line’ it might have been falling back on a very old tradition.

In fact, many sources on the origin of this phrase claim that it actually originated in the British House of Commons during the days when members of parliament (MPs) still carried swords on them.

This narrative has it that during those days, when the House was in session, members were required to stay behind lines, two sword-lengths apart, on the floor of the chamber. From this, it is said, developed the tradition that if a debate became too rowdy, unruly or disorderly, the Speaker would order members to “toe the line”.

This explanation of the origin of the expression is, however, widely disputed and no-one is really sure where, or how, it originated. There are number of theories, including that:

  • It comes from a common practice in many schools of taking a roll call twice a day, with students lining up on a line on the floor;
  • It originated in the world of sport, either from runners lining up at the starting line, with a part of their feet crossing it, or from boxing. In the early days of the sport, boxers were not allowed to step over a line scratched by the referee on the ground before he signalled the start of the rounds, only after he had commanded them to “toe the line”; and
  • On military parade grounds soldiers, to this day, in some instances, line up on a marked line on the ground.

The phrase historically, markedly the early 19th century, had a number of synonyms, like ‘toe the mark’ and ‘toe the plank’. The latter, ‘toe the plank’, is probably the oldest of the lot, referring to a practice dating back to at least the 17th century when barefooted seamen were required to line up for inspection, in line with the seam of two planks on the wooden decks.

Be that as it may, the ‘line’ phrase is the one that withstood the test of time – like a number of other ‘line’ phrases discussed further on.

While the seafaring world is the most likely oldest origin of the saying, the parliamentary one is the most unlikely. There is, in fact, no historical record that members of the House of Commons were ever allowed to take their swords into the chamber.

To this day the only person allowed, or required for that matter, to take a sword into the chamber, is the Sergeant at Arms as a symbol of the power of the state. This is also the case in the South African National Assembly

Over time the phrase has also picked up figurative meanings, like in ‘sticking to the rules’ and sticking to ‘party line’, as in politics.

The red line

In future, if South African MPs do not toe the line in terms of the new rules and the Speaker deems that they have ‘crossed the red line’ of propriety in the chamber, she may invoke a ‘red line’, which does indeed go back to the origin of the ‘red line’ phrase.

The saying ‘crossing the red line’ as in moving to a position or point no longer safe or behaving improperly, goes back to the red-coated Scottish regiment at the Battle of Balaclava in the Crimean War in 1858, when they repelled a vastly superior Russian force. In reports afterwards they were referred to as “the thin red line”.

The phrase was subsequently popularised in literature by authors like Kipling in his poem Tommy, Orwell in his A Clergyman’s Daughter and James Jones as the title of his book about a World War II battle, The Thin Red Line.

Members in tow

If MPs in future do not adhere to the instructions of the Speaker they might find parliamentary security personnel entering the chamber and leaving again with the rowdy members ‘in tow’.

The ‘tow’ in this case, which is often mistakenly used as ‘tow the line’, originally referred to, was and can still be, a rope used to drag something along. Today it can also be a cable or chain, but this phrase also probably dates back to early seafaring days when one ship would tug another one along – taking it ‘on tow’.  

This phrase has also found its way into the realm of figurative use, and can refer to my neighbour who, every Sunday, walks proudly with his chin up and shoulders pulled back, into church with his attractive wife and two daughters ‘in tow’.

And one could describe those of our MPs who cannot deal with the new arrangement around the rules as ‘not up to scratch’ for the rigours of politics.

In those early days of boxing, when a boxer couldn't cross the line at the start of the next round to keep a match going, people would comment that he was not “up to the scratch”.

by Piet Coetzer

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