Lately, it seems as if politicians are constantly calculating whether they should toe the party line, or not. But is that “toe the line” (T-O-E) or “tow the line” (T-O-W)?
You can imagine logical reasons for it to be either, but the right choice is “toe the line,” like your toes on your footsies.
One of the first examples in the Oxford English Dictionary is from an 1834 book called “Peter Simple” written by the naval officer and novelist Frederick Marryat. The line reads “He desired us to ‘toe a line’, which means to stand in a row.”
“Toe the line” is actually part of a group of phrases that have people toeing something. Earlier than toeing the line, you could toe the mark or toe the trig (a line marked on the ground), and later you could toe the scratch (again, a kind of mark). The general idea is of people lining up in a row in the same place to start a race or contest, although the very first use described people lining up on the deck of a ship.
You can imagine how people lining up in a row with their toes on a line would lead to the idea of people falling in line, as in conforming to a political agenda or behaving the way superiors want them to behave.
Your quick and dirty tip is that when you are writing about people toeing the line, think of them standing with their toes on a real line on the ground, and you’ll get the spelling right.