Lessons in Language: Toe to tow

I was in Beechworth recently – enjoying a spot of fine food, excellent wine and a luxurious B&B called Freeman on Ford. It was all very wonderful, made more delightful by Beechworth’s generally intact historical architecture and cheerily promoted link with Australia’s most famous bushranger, Ned Kelly.

It was while partaking of the Ned Kelly tourist walk that I heard tour guide Daniel Goonan talk about Ned’s exploits as a boxer. Goonan referred to boxers having to ‘toe the line’ or ‘come up to scratch’, referring to the way that 19th century bare knuckle fighters had to come up to the central line drawn in the ring – the line or ‘scratch’ – before beginning the bout.

After the tour, I chatted to Goonan and his colleague at the Beechworth Visitor Centre about the etymology of both expressions, and we discussed their boxing origins at length. We also discussed spelling.

‘Toeing the line’ is another of my language bugbears. According to my dictionary, ‘toe the line’ means ‘comply with authority’. These days, I often see it in print as ‘tow the line’, which annoys me. Tow it where?

Actually, to stick pins in my own pomposity about this, I thought the term derived from military usage – ranks of soldiers having to line up, toe to the line, in precise ranks. Of course, just because the Beechworth historical experts say it’s a boxing term doesn’t mean they are necessarily correct. The Wikipedia entry on the subject (and we all know that this is an utterly reliable source of information) refers to its origins variously as foot-racing, the military and the British House of Commons.

Nobody, however, is suggesting it is or was ever spelled as ‘tow’ in this context.

Coming ‘up to scratch’ is a whole other matter. My dictionary lists this as ‘up to the required standard’, which I suppose you would want to do as a boxer or risk a broken nose. The Online Etymology Dictionary notes that it’s a sporting term dating from 1778 but how it transformed from being at the starting line to being of a high enough standard to compete isn’t covered. However, English for Students has attempted a more comprehensive reply, with reference to boxing and knockout punches, and who am I to disbelieve them?

As much as I love etymology, it can be frustrating. Many words and particularly expressions are in use in the vernacular long before they are ever written down. As a result, people often try to reconstruct the origin of words by deciding what seems likely or logical, rather than by tracing the actual route the words have taken. When it’s all just words in the air, until someone pins them down on paper (or screen) that’s not always possible. Remind me to tell you about the Australian expression ‘Buckley’s or none’ one day.

In the meantime, I’m going to hunt up some more of that excellent Beechworth beer and wine, and drown my linguistic sorrows.