Monday, June 26, 2006

Some Things Never Change

"Some metaphors now current have been twisted out of their original meaning without those who use them even being aware of the fact. For example, toe the line is sometimes written as tow the line. "

"Lieberman has galvanized the left at a time when it's eager to flex its political muscle by attacking Democrats who don't tow the party line."
(Story in

The Orwell essay, incidentally, is a classic, well worth reading if you are not already familiar with it.


At 7:51 PM, June 26, 2006, Blogger Phil said...

This is kind of different, but I despise people making a mistake with "I couldn't care less" and saying "I could care less".

The point of "I couldn't care less" is to stress that it would be impossible to care less than you already do about whatever is being talked about.

At 9:11 AM, June 27, 2006, Blogger Caliban said...

I've always charitably interpreted the latter as sarcasm, in much the same vein as "that could happen" or "I'll get right on that".

On a similar note, it annoys me when people say "hey, you can add 'in bed' to any fortune cookie and it still makes sense!" Then they'll show you with some fortune cookie they saved: "You are loved by all... IN BED! Hehehehe."

Well, DUH. You can append ANY prepositional phrase to ANY sentence and it still makes sense. I've always preferred using "up your butt": "You are loved by all... up your butt".

You can even do both. "You are loved by all in bed up your butt." You can continue this to absurd lengths, which I leave as an exercise for the reader.

At 12:10 AM, June 28, 2006, Blogger SheetWise said...

Thanks for the Orwell link. As for the Time article, I could care less what they think (but I choose not to put any more effort into it).

At 2:56 AM, June 28, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Orwell is great. Thanks for the link.

At 5:41 AM, June 28, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What else do you expect frome Time? What else do you expect from journalism grads? Orwell and Hayek wrote on the changes in language, in usuage and intent.
Some people saw it coming but who listened.

At 1:41 PM, June 28, 2006, Blogger Jonathan said...

Other examples, often encountered:

"with baited breath"

"with a fine tooth-comb"

At 2:47 PM, June 29, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I never read the essay. Following the rules at the end will save me hours of frustration while dealing with my word processor.

At 11:23 PM, June 29, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Towing a line is a blue-collar activity that resonates with the Democratic base. Toeing a line is something to do in boot camp or in prison, which makes Democrats think of authoritarianism, which makes them think of their Republican bogey man.

At 1:45 PM, June 30, 2006, Blogger Erin said...

There is a whole website devoted to these kinds of errors, named eggcorns by the linguists at Language Log.

At 1:28 PM, July 01, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Strictly speaking, Orwell is wrong: the meaning of the phrase hasn't changed. "Toe the line" and "Tow the line" both suggest a group activity that one is supposed to join.

At 7:05 AM, July 02, 2006, Blogger SheetWise said...

anon --

One implies coercion, the other does not. Big difference.

At 9:33 AM, July 02, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I'm not so sure. Someone who says "You better toe the line!" means the same thing no matter how they spell it in their head.

You're right that the two phrases could be used slightly differently, but in my experience, they are not.

The phrase as a whole seems to have a stable meaning apart from its components.

Sort of like "hoist by your own petard". Who knows what a 'petard' is (no fair googling!)? But people know what the phrase means.

At 4:35 AM, July 03, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is it possible to toe anything other than a line?

Are there any other English verbs that can only have one particular noun as their object?

At 10:01 AM, July 03, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

julius blumfeld:

I'm not sure if a line is the only thing that can be toed; there might be some context where the verb means "to push or touch something with one's toe".

But I think it's clear that the phrase "to toe the line" is idiomatic, and the only place "toe" appears as a verb with any regularity.

Which is why, it seems to me, that people can use the phrase with "tow" instaed of "toe" without a change in meaning.

At 2:58 PM, July 04, 2006, Blogger David Friedman said...

1. I know what a petard is.

2. I think there is a significant difference between "tow the line" and "toe the line." The former suggests actively helping with a common project. The latter--which is the original form--suggests standing still in lines, precisely where you are ordered to stand.

At 5:01 AM, July 05, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree that there is a difference in meaning, but I locate it elsewhere. For me, the phrase "toe the line" is primarily associated with boxing, and hence with an act of courage. To toe the party line is to risk one's reputation and personal popularity for the perceived collective good of the party.

As for "tow the line": I agree with others that it is suggestive of tough manual labour. That in turn will suggest different images to different people, but personally I find the key connotations to be negative - it's boring, repetitive and unthinking.

At 9:45 AM, July 07, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jon: As I recall, the boxing idiom is "toe the mark," rather than "line."

David: Knowing what a petard is doesn't count if you also know what a Lucerne Hammer is.

At 10:28 AM, July 07, 2006, Blogger David Friedman said...

Larry writes:

"Jon: As I recall, the boxing idiom is "toe the mark," rather than "line." "

I associate "toe the line" with soldiers standing in precise formation.

"David: Knowing what a petard is doesn't count if you also know what a Lucerne Hammer is."

I even know what a bardiche is.

At 12:34 AM, July 09, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

yu've never taken a course for credit in either field, what does tht mean ?, you don't have a degree or something.

At 1:46 AM, July 09, 2006, Blogger David Friedman said...

"u've never taken a course for credit in either field, what does tht mean ?, you don't have a degree or something."

I have a doctorate in physics--but I've never taken a course in either law or economics, although I did sit in on a few briefly.

I have taught quite a lot of them, however.

At 7:50 AM, July 18, 2006, Blogger Somena Woman said...

Certain Cliche's really bother me...

"Over the top" -- used currently to describe somebody as over-reacting to something. Originally, as far as I know came from Soldiers in Trench Warfare, going Up, Over the Top of the trench in an all out assault...

"The Horror... the Horror" -- from Apocalpyse now. I don't think people who have even seen this movie, use this constantly in blog-posts to make light of a situation.

"I'm Shocked.. Shocked I tell you... Shocked"... From Casablanca... ditto with "The Horror.

Oh, and the whole range of blog discourse that amounts to cut and pasting what somebody else has said and adding only "Heh" or "Feh" or "Meh" -- as if this were some sort of substantial contribution or addition to the discussion.

And lastly, the phrase that is not even allowed to be uttered in our household "Sending a message". This jargon of politicians of all stripes enacting legislation of varying stupid degrees because it will "send a message" - drives both Charles and I bonkers. Somebody famous once said "If you want to send a message, don't pass a law, call Western Union"

At 8:53 AM, August 03, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

'"The Horror... the Horror" -- from Apocalpyse now. I don't think people who have even seen this movie, use this constantly in blog-posts to make light of a situation.'

I haven't seen the movie, but I have read Conrad's short story 'Heart of Darkness'.

At 9:23 AM, September 18, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Caliban, the point of the fortune cookie thing and 'in bed' isn't that the sentence makes sense. That's just idiotic and anyone stressing that is a fool. Of course the sentence makes sense.

The point is that they are much more interesting than the normal stupid fortune cookies.

More on topic, it really is amazing how many people don't actually know what they're saying.


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