Monday, March 12, 2007

Tow That Toe

On my program last week, a caller told of an unintentional error in a recent book about Governor Granholm of Michigan. The author wrote, “I followed the governor with cameraman in toe.” That would require either a gigantic foot or a shrunken cameraman.

The image required is of being “in tow,” pulled by a line by another vessel. In Old English, it could refer to anything being hauled or dragged, but by the 14th century, it was applied almost exclusively to ships.

“In tow” is matched by another error involving a homonym. I have come across “tow the line,” meaning to abide by the rules and regulations. I can see where pulling a barge attached to a hawser might spring to mind, but in this case it should be “toe the line.”

Many of the early uses of this image come from the British Navy, so many commentators think that it started with sailors in formation. The space between deck planks was filled with loose hemp or jute fiber, then sealed with pitch. As a result, dark lines ran the length of the deck. When the crew was required to fall into formation for inspection or instruction, they would place the toes of their boots on a designated line to achieve a neat formation. American sailors favored the phrase, “toe the crack.”

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