Toe the Line
(Will appear in the May 2008 issue of Community News)
To toe the line is to fall in line with a group and to follow its rules and customs. Linguists think it originated in the 19th Century, from athletes putting their toe to the line at the beginning of a race. In some old books, the phrase toe the mark is also used, with the same meaning as toe the line. Another suggested origin is from navies having sailors line up with their toes at the line formed by one of the deck planks. Tour guides at the House of Commons in London claim that the expression comes from two straight lines drawn on opposite sides of the room. They tell tourists that, back when gentlemen wore swords, when parliamentary discussions got too heated, the Speaker would shout, "Toe the line!" The Members would have to stand behind the two lines, which were deliberately painted more than a sword's length apart, so that the only blood drawn would be rhetorical. It's a great story, but the present House of Commons was built after World War Two, the older one having been damaged in the air raids, and old paintings of Parliamentary meetings from the days when men did wear swords don't show those lines, so that tale is probably untrue. You'll often see this phrase misspelled as tow the line, which is incorrect and makes no sense. Perhaps people think of barges being towed, but then the phrase would refer to a heavy burden, not to falling in line.
I'm collecting all of these at: http://www.dvorkin.com/davidsdefs.html