“Tow the line”

The language police have taken into custody one of Orwell’s “dying metaphors.”

In the firefighters’ union nastygram abut Rudy Giuliani cited below, we find the following paragraph:

Rest assured, our exclusion of Mayor Giuliani is not about any particular contractual or policy issue or disagreement, nor is it based on his unfriendly relationship with our New York City affiliates prior to 9/11 — which we will document and explain in additional correspondence later on during the campaign. In fact, we invited several candidates with whom we have had substantial disagreement on policy issues because we feel very strongly that our members have the right to hear from all candidates, not just those who tow the IAFF line.

I’ve seen this formulation often. But I can’t for the life of me imagine how to tow a line. Will the hook on the back of a tow truck engage a one-dimensional geometric object? Or, if the line crosses water, do you need a tugboat? With no thickness at all, however, I’d expect a line to be pretty sharp; wouldn’t it cut the tow-ropes?

In “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell mentions the use of “tow the line” instead of “toe the line” as evidence that the people using the phrase haven’t bothered to think what it might mean. He lists “toe the line” (a phrase whose origin is disputed, but which isn’t a bad image for standing exactly where you’re supposed to stand) among what he calls “dying metaphors.”

“Toe the line” has been a long time dying. Let’s put it out of its misery.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com