The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 11.0882 Friday, 21 April 2000.
From: Ron Dwelle <
Date: Thursday, 20 Apr 2000 16:48:03 -0400
Subject: Re: Towing
Not to question Terence too much, but:
"Towing the line" is an Americanism, oft used in the 19th century. Its
referent is the typical cross-country transport mode common on the Erie
Canal (and other canals) where mules (or sometimes Irishmen) literally
"towed" the canal boats cross-country. If you visit the Erie today, you
will still see the tow-tracks, which are quite narrow. It's not clear if
the "line" refers to the tow line (rope) or the narrow path which was
worn into the ground by the towers. But the meaning is, if you didn't
pay attention to where you were walking, you'd fall into the drink. So
"towing the line" meant to pay attention, or attend to your job.
I always understood that the Britishism was "toeing the mark," referring
to the starting line of a race (as in "on your mark, get set,
pontificate"). I've never heard a real American say "toe the mark" or
"tow the mark."
I think nowadays the two have merged into one grand cliche, and as an
editor I would accept either version (assuming a cliche were called
I was pretty sure that Dickens used the American version in his American
Notes, but I just squandered half a day hunting for it and couldn't find
it. Perhaps some more scholarly soul can locate it, or other