toe the line
Yes, it’s toe, not tow, a common mistake. Toe the line or mark is a metaphorical reference to either the start of a race, the runners conforming to the starter’s orders, or to soldiers and sailors standing in formation, often literally with their toes touching a line drawn on the ground to ensure the formation conforms to the proper standard. Many of the early citations are from the Royal Navy and this may be the source of the phrase, although this is not certain. From Hector Bull-Us’s (James Kirke Paulding’s) 1813 The Diverting History of John Bull and Brother Jonathan:
He began to think it was high time to toe the mark.
And we have this from William Glascock’s 1826 The Naval Sketchbook:
The brigades of seamen embodied to act with our troops in America, as well as in the north coast of Spain, contrived to ”ship a bagnet” on a pinch, and to ”toe” (for that was the phrase) “a tolerable line.”
(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)
Copyright 1997-2013, by David Wilton