Hold the Line

Discuss word origins and meanings.

Hold the Line

Post by PhilHunt » Mon Mar 22, 2010 5:55 pm

I often enjoy discussing with my students the origin of certain expressions. Telephone terminology is a ripe one to pick from where terms such as "Hang up", "to give someone a bell/ring" "To dial a number" come from the physical structure of early phones, but does anyone know where the expression "Hold the Line" comes from? Obviously the line is the telephone line, but why is it held?
Thanks.
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Re: Hold the Line

Post by zmjezhd » Mon Mar 22, 2010 6:19 pm

I see the phrase as early as 1908 in this phone journal (link).
The operator completely controls the line—at all times and under all circumstances—in spite of anything that any subscriber may do. She can give talking connection to any subscriber and take it away from him with equal facility—take the line away from one and bestow it on another at will. She may place two subscribers on the same line in talking connection with each other, one on each side of the subscriber from whom the line has just been taken, and the latter will be absolutely locked out. The "line hog" and similar nuisances can be effectively controlled. No subscriber can hold the line to the detriment of the service nor against the Emergency Signal. The three minute rule can be rigidly enforced.
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Re: Hold the Line

Post by Edwin F Ashworth » Tue Mar 23, 2010 12:16 am

Wouldn't military or sports usage pre-date the telephone usage? Expressions often do a "context leap".
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Re: Hold the Line

Post by PhilHunt » Tue Mar 23, 2010 10:03 am

Could you expand on this Edwin? Can you think of any military terms which could have crossed over?
Thanks
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Re: Hold the Line

Post by Erik_Kowal » Tue Mar 23, 2010 10:45 am

Phil, I can't guarantee that all the following have a purely military origin, but I'll take a stab at these:

Hold the fort. Run the gauntlet. On the warpath. Make a stand. Put up a brave front. Stick to one's guns. Under siege. Man the barricades. No surrender! Take evasive action. Beat a strategic retreat. Take up arms. Take the offensive. Fire the first shot. Strike the first blow. Have someone in one's cross hairs. Hit the target. Attack tooth and nail. Put to the sword. Gun down. Shoot to kill. Show no mercy. Give no quarter. Stand firm. Take by storm. Take no prisoners. Lay waste. Get caught in the crossfire. Field of battle. Live to fight another day.

Cease hostilities.
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Re: Hold the Line

Post by PhilHunt » Tue Mar 23, 2010 11:06 am

Sorry Erik, I didn't make myself clear in my last post. I meant, did Edwin have any particular military term in mind which could have crossed over into telephone operator parlance.
Thank you for the list of terms though. I'm personally very interested in the subject, especially how military terms have crossed over into business parlance.
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Re: Hold the Line

Post by Erik_Kowal » Tue Mar 23, 2010 11:50 am

Sorry, Phil, I misunderstood.

In that case, how about 'charge the battery'? ;-)
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Re: Hold the Line

Post by Bobinwales » Tue Mar 23, 2010 12:19 pm

Erik_Kowal wrote:'charge the battery'
Ten out of ten and a gold star.
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Re: Hold the Line

Post by trolley » Tue Mar 23, 2010 3:39 pm

When I read this title, my first thought was not about telephones. I was thinking along the same line as Edwin was (I think).
"Hold the line" = stay in formation, not break ranks, not let the enemy through, not give ground.
There's not much point in drawing a line in the sand if you're not going to hold it.
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Re: Hold the Line

Post by hsargent » Wed Mar 24, 2010 1:04 am

Of course there is Hold it or Hold it a minute.

I recognize the sports metaphor but context will determine if it is a one on one personal interaction or a team.

Putting a line on hold is a phone activity.
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Re: Hold the Line

Post by Bobinwales » Wed Mar 24, 2010 10:31 am

Do you think it possible that it came from the days when an operator literally put a plug into a jack socket? If the socket was already in use, the operator would have the plug and line held in her hand, so she was ‘holding the line’.
Apologies to the PC lobby, but operators were usually women in those days.
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Re: Hold the Line

Post by PhilHunt » Wed Mar 24, 2010 10:58 am

That was my gut feeling too Bob, but now trolley mentions it, I'm tempted by the military metaphor: Hold the line > hold formation > stay in place > stay on the line. Perhaps the line mentioned was never intended to mean telephone line.
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Re: Hold the Line

Post by Bobinwales » Wed Mar 24, 2010 11:31 am

PhilHunt wrote:Perhaps the line mentioned was never intended to mean telephone line.
Nah! telephones have been linked by lines even before Glen Campbell was the lineman for the county.

We have linesmen in the UK by the way.
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Re: Hold the Line

Post by Erik_Kowal » Wed Mar 24, 2010 11:38 am

I found a discussion by Evan Morris about the origin of 'hold the line' in one of his columns. I quote:

"[...] there are two primary meanings in English. One is, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, "to maintain telephonic connection during a break in conversation." In such a situation, I might say "Hold the line" (or, more commonly today, "Please hold") before I push the hold button, the purpose of the phrase being to let the caller know that I will be back and am not simply hanging up. This sense appeared around 1912, but it's not really related to the old days of manual switchboards where lines were actually plugged in, and the imperative "hold" does not mean "don't unplug." "Hold" here is used in the very old sense of "preserve, keep or maintain." A figurative use sometimes heard in the US is the expression "hold the phone," meaning essentially "wait a minute" and indicating surprise ("Hold the phone! You mean Larry won the lottery?"). My sense is that "hold the phone" is more common than "hold the line" in this meaning.

The other sense of "hold the line" means "to maintain and preserve a position against attack, opposition or change" ("It's important that the School Board hold the line against licentious apparel"). Given that you mention a possible military origin in your question, this is probably the sense you mean. But while this "hold the line" does conjure up visions of brave soldiers defending a position against an onslaught (probably of other brave soldiers), the source of the metaphor is not, in fact, military. The reference is to American football, and the "line" is the line of scrimmage where the ball sits at the start of each play, beyond which each team would rather its opponent not progress. Metaphorical use of "hold the line" in this sense is, no doubt, nearly as old as football, but, interestingly, the earliest usage recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1956, in singer Billie Holiday's autobiography Lady Sings the Blues: "But 52nd Street couldn't hold the line against Negroes forever." "

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While we are on the subject of telephones, my guess is that 'getting our wires crossed' (i.e. having a mutual misunderstanding or talking at cross purposes) was in fact spawned by the problems that could arise in connection (or disconnection) with a manual telephone switchboard.

This thread reminds me of an anecdote that my grandparents related about making phone calls in their small village in Denmark in the 1930s/1940s. One of the switchboard operators in the local telephone exchange made a habit of not disconnecting her headphones when she had put through a call. She would listen in on conversations and then repeat what she heard to other people in the village. So my grandparents stopped discussing private matters when they knew she was on duty. Instead, they would either wait until her shift was over, or they would try to call the other party before the operator in question started work.

My grandmother taught the local schoolchildren and was not given to taking any nonsense. If her call was both urgent and confidential, once the connection had been established she had no qualms about sharply instructing the operator to pull out her headphones and stop eavesdropping.
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Re: Hold the Line

Post by PhilHunt » Mon Mar 29, 2010 1:02 pm

Erik, I forgot to thank you for the work you did on this thread. It was very useful and informative. Thank you.
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