Hold the Line

Discuss word origins and meanings.

Re: Hold the Line

Post by Erik_Kowal » Mon Mar 29, 2010 1:40 pm

You're very welcome, although it is really other people who did the heavy lifting on the research. :-)
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Re: Hold the Line

Post by Wizard of Oz » Tue Mar 30, 2010 5:40 am

.. I can't accept that with the importance of The Line in military tactics going back to the earliest legions that it took an American Football coach to first coin the phrase hold the line. .. to this end and with my limited research opportunities it only took a small time to find in Google newspapers the following references from 1853 onwards >>
1853 - "If we hold the line [on city aid], we’ll be very lucky," Mrs. Phelps said. The society, which was founded in 1853, serves annually more than 100000 New York City children and their families. New York Times (NOTE: I am not sure that this is an actual example of the idiom we are talking about. I think it has a closer relationship to the usage that refers to maintaining a particular line of thought.)

May 12, 1864—11 pm General WRIGHT, Commanding Sixth Corps. Your dispatch received. The major-general commanding directs me to say that the Fifth Corps has been under fire all day, too that they were sent to you to relieve your troops not to hold your line, but to form a column of attack which has been abandoned. From United States Congressional Serial Set

August 2, 1864. Brigadier- General GROSE, First Division, Fourth Army Corps: GENERAL: You will hold the line you now occupy until otherwise ordered. The war of the rebellion: a compilation of the official records of the Union and Confederate armies. ; Series 1 - Volume 38 (Part V), page 331

October 22, 1864. Major-General WARREN: GENERAL: In view of our conversation this morning, I would like to know the number of men and guns it will require to hold the line of redoubts and enclosed batteries now held by your corps, including the minimum picket-line, which should be furnished as far as practicable from the garrisons of the works. . The war of the rebellion: a compilation of the official records of the Union and Confederate armies. ; Series 1 - Volume 38 (Part V), page 305

May 5, 1880 - Humphreys can hold the line to the -road and the refusal along with it. New York Times

Nov 1, 1884 - I knew that I was safe if I could hold out till the arrival of reinforcements, which was but a matter of time; and, with the full sense of my own responsibility, I was determined to hold the line of the plateau, even if surrounded on all sides, until assistance should come. The Century, Volume 0029, Issue 1 (Nov 1884) Title: Battles and Leaders of the Civil War: The Battle of Bull Run [pp.80-100]

Nov 14, 1891 - His strongest play is breaking the line and making holes for his backs to run through. Mourey, left guard, Jefferis, center, and Wickes, right guard, are all comparatively new men and all three over 6 feet tall. Jefferis 201 and each of the others 180. They hold the line well. Chicago Tribune

Dec 23, 1898 - The Spaniards made one or two efforts to retake the line, but were promptly driven back. Both Gen. Sumner and you sent me word to hold the line at all hazards, and that night we dug a line of entrenchments across our front, using the captured Spanish entrenchment tools. New York Times
.. it seems from these early quotes that the idiom hold the line was well established in military terms before the early football quote, 1891, .. and given that American Football only introduced the line of scrimmage in 1880, I draw the conclusion that the erstwhile coach borrowed the expression from the military where it was well established ..

.. why by 1905 it had travelled Downunder to New Zealand , albeit by the use of a quote from London ..
Feb 4, 1905 - Field-Marshal Oyama reports that the Japanese firmly hold the line of the Hunho, their extreme right, being established on the right bank. Wanganui Herald, Volume XXXIX, Issue 11475 (New Zealand)
.. there were many, many more quotes but they can easily be accessed on google newspapers .. however it is obvious that these quotes do predate the OED’s 1956 quote .. OMG I’ve done a Ken !!!! ..

WoZ holding the line Downunder
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Re: Hold the Line

Post by PhilHunt » Tue Mar 30, 2010 7:37 am

Thanks Woz. A good bit of debunking there.
I too have noticed that the earliest known quotes in some reference material seem to be easily disproved using google. I can only guess that these dictionaries have not caught up with on line search databases yet and are still using traditional methods of finding quotes. It also depends on how old ones dictionary is. Anything over 5 years old would probably have been compiled without this technology.
Perhaps you should send the OED an email.
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Re: Hold the Line

Post by Erik_Kowal » Tue Mar 30, 2010 8:33 am

It's disappointing to find that my source was apparently so wide of the mark on this one. I think an email to Evan Morris would also be in order.
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Re: Hold the Line

Post by PhilHunt » Tue Mar 30, 2010 12:00 pm

Something that was completely overlooked in this post is the use of 'hold the line' in craftsmanship. Measurements were often made using pieces of string held up by workmen whilst another made a mark on the surface. I've found a quote from 1703 where it says "When two Work-men are not at hand to hold the Line at both ends,
he that Lines it, strikes one point of his compass, or sometimes a pricker or a nail atop..." Line is capitalised in the original text, thus it must have been the name for the workmans tool, much the same as a plumb line now. The two workmen holding the line would have to remain in place, thus this term could possibly have entered military venacular via tradesmen.
A similar reference to a Line can be found in a miners guide from 1748. The line in this quote is more similar to a plumb line as it is used to measure depth, thus I would discount it.
In google books there is a gap from 1703 till nearly 1800 when we do not see a further reference to 'hold the line' in relation to workmen (though there are several hits for anglers); however, in 1798 in the new Jamaican magazine we see a further description of marking roads, using two workmen to 'hold the Line' stretched upon the ground.

Then in 1805 we see the first metaphorical use of 'hold the line'.
A vindication of The modern history of Hindostan, from the gross ...‎ - Pagina 35
Thomas Maurice - 1805

The Reviewer must hold the line of demarcation, and let the author transgress it
at his peril. The direst anathemas of critical vengeance, infallibly attend ...
I don't know if we can jump to any conclusions from these findings but it does seem to cast more doubt on the OED. (Sorry Erik).
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Re: Hold the Line

Post by Erik_Kowal » Tue Mar 30, 2010 1:27 pm

PhilHunt wrote:I don't know if we can jump to any conclusions from these findings but it does seem to cast more doubt on the OED. (Sorry Erik).
I'm not sure why you should be sorry on my account. I quoted Evan Morris from The Word Detective's website, not the OED.
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Re: Hold the Line

Post by PhilHunt » Tue Mar 30, 2010 4:07 pm

I guess sorry was the wrong word. I just thought you'd nailed it there with your quote from Word Detective, I'm personally sorry it now seems in doubt. Also, I miss-matched yours and Woz's posts with the OED part. Please excuse me.
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Re: Hold the Line

Post by Wizard of Oz » Wed Mar 31, 2010 1:26 pm

.. Erik I have posted my WW post to the Word Detective site .. thanks for your suggestion ..

WoZ holding, drawing, walking and crossing the line to confront the thin blue line.
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Re: Hold the Line

Post by hsargent » Wed Mar 31, 2010 2:21 pm

Is it possible that "hold the line" is a sentence and not an expression?

It depends on the context and the era expressed.

A sentence serves the purpose to communicate a thought.

If you are talking about football, the line is a group of men.

If you are talking on a phone, you are talking about a phone line.

If you are a General, you may be talking about a strategic position.

If you are a carpenter, you are talking about the chalk line or the measuring tape.

I don't see that this is so much an expression with history as it is a sentence in context!
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Re: Hold the Line

Post by Bobinwales » Wed Mar 31, 2010 3:36 pm

Harry, I couldn't agree more.
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Re: Hold the Line

Post by PhilHunt » Wed Mar 31, 2010 10:37 pm

Sorry Harry and Bob, I don't agree.
The fact is that holding a 'telephone line' or holding 'a line of men' makes no logical sense. So, though the line may change from context to context, the metaphorical sense of hold the line=wait/maintain position has to have an origin, and I would argue it has an origin in some physical action through which one must stay motionless.
Remember, I started out saying that the physical object of early telephones influenced the expressions we use to describe operating them. Many such expressions have bled into other fields of life not related to the telephone and one could argue that they are all seperate expressions bearing no relation to each other but some would argue they share common metaphorical bases, and in turn common origins.

Look at the following:
The washing was hung out to dry.
I was hung out to dry.

Though the meaning is different in each case we have a common ground and it is a simple leap of judgement to say that the second sentence borrows its metaphorical sense from the action of the first one, and not vice versa.
Likewise, what seems a simple sentece 'hold the line please' is actually a metaphor for wait and not a physical action, thus it most likely has an origin in a physical action. I would argue that the military definition is equally metaphorical and thus my conclusion is that it is borrowed from an earlier expression. I'm speculating on what that origin is but I would argue the military definition is not it.
So I strongly disagree with both of you.
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Re: Hold the Line

Post by Wizard of Oz » Thu Apr 01, 2010 3:09 am

.. sorry Harry and Bob I can't go all the way with you on what you say .. yes I do agree that at times the words "hold", "the" and "line" can be simply a part of a sentence .. for example a fisherman might say, "Hold the line with your finger." .. a builder might say "Hold the line straight so I can get the right mark." .. but in both of these cases the line referred to is a physical entity that can be physically held .. but then we come to the metaphorical sense of the idiom, hold the line, which has grown out of the military sense of troops holding a tactical line against some enemy .. this usage has now spread to other areas where people could say for example, "We must hold the line against the developers if we don't want them to build the office block." .. or for instance the example quoted in the OED with reference to music .. there is no physical line or any physical action of holding but a metaphorical reference to a state of resistance to some common perceived enemy or threat where the usage has grown out of the military reference ..

WoZ on the line
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Re: Hold the Line

Post by Erik_Kowal » Thu Apr 01, 2010 4:39 am

To my mind, the evidence of historical usages that WoZ has supplied pretty convincingly buttresses his argument that the metaphorical usage was a military expression first.

I also propose that the two metaphorical usages (military and telephonic) have nothing to do with each other besides using the same form of words. It seems highly likely to me that the later, telephony-related usage, arose quite independently, since it has no obvious connection with the battlefield but an obvious basis in the technology of the telephone.

The sports-related idiom appears to me to be a variant of the military usage, given that team sports like rugby and American football are essentially short wars that are tamed for the civilian domain.

As WoZ points out, the artisan-related usage is purely literal, not metaphorical. It is thus irrelevant to the original question posed by Phil Hunt.
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Re: Hold the Line

Post by PhilHunt » Thu Apr 01, 2010 10:02 am

Sorry I don't agree with you Erik.
The military usage is a metaphor in itself. A metaphor must arise from a source. Though we now easily understand the concept of a military line being 'held' as 'defended/maintained/etc', it is not a motor function, rather a metaphor. I would argue that the sense of 'hold' = 'wait/remain immobile' when used in conjunction with a 'line', beit a line of men or a telephone line, is the source of this metaphor, thus the metaphor, like most metaphors, must spring from a source in the tactile world.

I threw up the idea of workmen holding lines just as an example of how the term predates the quotes on military lines that Woz supplied in a context where patience and staying still/firm are necessary. The real world source could be another, but the 'Line' in question was a tool physically held. If you read my previous post you would also see that I found a metaphorical use of 'hold the line' from 1805 which predates Woz's quotes and does not alude to military lines of defence but 'lines of demarcation', which is closer to the idea of workmen marking lines. This is a metaphor, thus not to be dismissed as purely literal.

I also disagree that the military usage and telephonic usage of the metaphor are not related. If the term was used metaphorically for enough time to mean 'wait' then it could be easily adapted to telephonic use where 'lines of communication' would give it a new context and meaning but with the same basic metaphorical sense.

Your assumption that team sports are variants of war thus 'hold the line' must come from war could be incorrect. I completely agree with the metaphor that 'sports are war' and many metaphorical terms used to describe covering ground, attacking etc are borrowed from military terms but I believe there is another metaphor at play here. 'War requires taking territory'. Territory is area. Area can be defined as space. Space can me measured'. I think you'll find this basic theme also in 'Metaphors We Live By', where it is argued that there can often be several themes at play at one time in the same metaphor. I believe that the 'line' as used in military terminology actually describes 'area' taken or to be taken; thus, area is a measurable concept, measurments must be made in real space....etc....

Just a thought.
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Re: Hold the Line

Post by trolley » Thu Apr 01, 2010 10:56 pm

Phil Hunt wrote:
"I believe that the 'line' as used in military terminology actually describes 'area' taken or to be taken; thus, area is a measurable concept, measurments must be made in real space....etc...."

That sounds more like holding (or giving or gaining) ground. I think the military line is just that, a line of men. The line isn't the area. It is the thing that protects the area. That is the line that must be held (remain in a certain state, position or condition). I think it's one small step from there to the sporting term, but one (or two) giant leaps to the telephone connection.
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