Hold the Line

Discuss word origins and meanings.

Re: Hold the Line

Post by Erik_Kowal » Thu Apr 01, 2010 11:42 pm

Phil, you quoted,
"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 ...
Even from this small fragment it seems apparent to me that you are reading the text as "The Reviewer must {hold the line} of demarcation..." (where my curly brackets enclose the semantic unit). However, the semantic unit in that quote which is of interest in the context of this discussion is not what you imply. It should be read as, "The Reviewer must hold the {line of demarcation}...", where 'hold' clearly means 'maintain the position of' or 'resist an attempt to dislodge' -- both of which are uncontroversial and conventionally accepted connotations of the verb 'to hold'.

A line of demarcation is typically the term used for the boundary that defines a territory.

The US Department of Defense defines it as "A line defining the boundary of a buffer zone or area of limitation. A line of demarcation may also be used to define the forward limits of disputing or belligerent forces after each phase of disengagement or withdrawal has been completed. See also area of limitation; buffer zone; disengagement; peace operations." (Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, US Department of Defense, 2005.)

Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1898) defines it as "The line which divides the territories of different proprietors. The space between two opposite doctrines, opinions, rules of conduct, etc." (rather like the present discussion).

For these reasons, among others, I stand by my previous remarks.

Other readers may wish to know that the full title of the book from which you quoted is A vindication of the modern history of Hindostan, from the gross misrepresentations, and illiberal strictures, of the Edinburgh reviewers, by the author (T. Maurice), published in 1805.
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Re: Hold the Line

Post by PhilHunt » Fri Apr 02, 2010 1:25 pm

Firstly, I would like to apologise for the way my posts have gone in this thread. I came on here asking for advice and now I seen to be dismissing other people’s advice. It’s because of the way I think. I have a tendency to find solutions to problems through discussion, be they spoken or written, and this thread has set off a train of thought that has strayed wildly from my original post.

Secondly, I accept your analysis of the Review quote Erik. You are quite right that the 'line of demarcation' is the semantic unit here. However, I stand by my initial analysis that demarcation must denote area, and we measure area through creating an imaginary boundary line, hence such sayings as "I'm standing at the edge of the clearing" or 'We've reached the town limits". Military campaigns are based on the taking of area and the constant redefining of boundaries, thus a line of men defines a boundary behind which is defended land. The same could be said of sports such as rugby, American football etc.. I admit that I may have got a bit carried away with excitement over theorizing the possible connection between the workmen’s Line and boundary areas.

Another point I would like to bring to mind is the historical use of 'line'. I actually did my dissertation on 'The Line' at university and its metaphorical use as a boundary, or limit. In that essay I focused on the metaphorical use of boundaries of popular culture or conventional behaviour, and how each successive generation pushes forward or redefines these boundaries. The boundaries then define a line which needs to be crossed by successive generations, hence culture is a continuous redefining of boundaries and crossing of lines. This is straying somewhat from my original point about the line but helps to introduce where I’m leading.
Nowadays we very easily think of lines as abstract boundaries and objects in rows, yet this has not always been so. A quick look at the history gives us some clues as to the connection between tactile lines and our modern concept of imaginary lines.
from O.E. line "rope, row of letters," and from O.Fr. ligne, both from L. linea "linen thread, string, line," from phrase linea restis "linen cord," from fem. of lineus (adj.) "of linen," from linum "linen" (see linen). Oldest sense is "rope, cord, string;" extended 1382 to "a thread-like mark" (from sense "cord used by builders for making things level," 1340), also "track, course, direction." Sense of "things or people arranged in a straight line" is from 1557. That of "cord bearing hooks used in fishing" is from c.1300. Meaning "one's occupation, branch of business" is from 1638, probably from misunderstood KJV translation of 2 Cor. x.16, "And not to boast in another mans line of things made ready to our hand," where line translates Gk. kanon, lit. "measuring rod." Meaning "class of goods in stock" is from 1834. Meaning "telegraph wire" is from 1847 (later "telephone wire"), hence lineman (1858). Meaning "policy or set of policies of a political faction" is 1892, Amer.Eng., from notion of a procession of followers; this is the sense in party line. In British army, the Line (1802) is the regular, numbered troops, as distinguished from guards and auxiliaries. In the Navy (1704, e.g. ship of the line) it refers to the battle line. Lines "words of an actor's part" is from 1882. Lines of communication were originally transverse trenches in seigeworks.
There is a lot of interesting information here about the military usage of ‘line’ but the point I’m trying to make is that the earliest usage of ‘line’ was that of a rope, cord or string. The way we have come to communicate the placement of objects or people in a row inevitably stems from man’s physical interaction with this concrete object.

Another thing to consider is the understanding of ‘hold’. We too easily accept that its meaning is clear, but this verb has evolved over the years to have many meanings.
hold (v.)
O.E. haldan (Anglian), healdan (W.Saxon), class VII strong verb (past tense heold, pp. healden), from P.Gmc. *khaldanan (cf. O.N. halda, Du. houden, Ger. halten "to hold," Goth. haldan "to tend"), originally "to keep, tend, watch over" (as cattle), later "to have." Ancestral sense is preserved in behold. The original pp. holden was replaced by held beginning 16c., but survives in some legal jargon and in beholden. Hold back is 1530s, trans.; 1570s, intrans.; hold off is early 15c., trans.; c.1600, intrans.; hold out is 1520s as “to stretch forth,” 1580s as “to resist pressure.” Hold on is early 13c. as “to maintain one’s course,” 1830 as “to keep one’s grip on something,” 1846 as an order to wait or stop. To hold (one's) own is from early 14c. No holds barred "with all restrictions removed" is first recorded 1942 in theater jargon but is ultimately from wrestling. Phrase hold your horses "be patient" is from 1844.
It is very late in its evolution that hold came to mean ‘stop/wait’. The military sense of ‘hold the line’ is most likely evolved form the original meaning of ‘tend to/watch over’ the boundary line. So, we have an underlying metaphor of ‘watching over demarked land’. The Reviewer quote appears to be using this quote in the same sense. Demarked areas require watching over.

I’m willing to accept that the holding of actual Lines by workmen is probably not the root of everything related to lines, but I hope I have demonstrated to some extent that our concept of lines in the military expression needs to take into account an abstract notion of area and boundaries and that both ‘holding’ and ‘lines’ are in themselves more abstract than the clear cut concept we understand today.

And finally, in response to Eriks comment that the telephone expression ‘hold the line’ must have evolved separately, We can see in the etymology of ‘Line’ that “Lines of communication were originally transverse trenches in seigeworks.”, so it seems more and more likely that the term evolved from trench warfare and not open warfare, so everyone who thought of a military origin were on the right track.

Additional note:

I saw that in Brewer’s it says “The space between two opposite doctrines, opinions, rules of conduct, etc." I find it interesting that Brewer’s think that a line is space, as if it has width beyond only length. Perhaps their judgement is coloured by a knowledge of fine art. I do not see a line as a space between two forms (be they doctrines or opinions) but rather the edge at which one moves from one space to another. IE: you can have one opinion or an opposing opinion, but you cannot occupy space between these. Perhaps the writer was thinking of a fence.
Last edited by PhilHunt on Mon Apr 19, 2010 11:58 am, edited 2 times in total.
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Re: Hold the Line

Post by Edwin F Ashworth » Mon Apr 05, 2010 12:25 am

Sorry, I've been fighting banks about unannounced falling ISA interest rates, and a Cannon scanner that doesn't like USB2.
I would have thought "(Please) hold/keep the line open" is as unidiomatic as it gets, and am conjecturing that the omission of the adjective complement may have come about as an exercise in mild punning by analogy with an already accepted expression.
Of course, I would not suggest a similar possibility for the expression "the phony war", that time before the first real exchanges.
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Re: Hold the Line

Post by Erik_Kowal » Mon Apr 05, 2010 8:05 am

Edwin F Ashworth wrote:... "the phony war", that time before the first real exchanges.
A phony war is a great time to hold a calling party, especially if it will involve call pickup and hotlines.
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Re: Hold the Line

Post by Edwin F Ashworth » Tue Apr 06, 2010 11:29 pm

It is also the code-name for the Daleks' plans to shoot down the Tardis.
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Re: Hold the Line

Post by Erik_Kowal » Wed Apr 07, 2010 10:09 am

A phoney farm is a place where politicians and journalists whose hypocrisies have finally overtaken their consciences go so they can return to normal.
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Re: Hold the Line

Post by Edwin F Ashworth » Wed Apr 07, 2010 6:13 pm

Yes; they have magnetic fields. Which explains the returning officers, who make sure the right politicians are admitted. The journalists are encouraged to try their hand at broadcasting. Or thrown in the typing pool.
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Re: Hold the Line

Post by Wizard of Oz » Fri Apr 09, 2010 7:22 am

.. sorry to interrupt the musing about farms and politicians and other clever thoughts .. Erik I did post my reply at Word Detective, as you suggested, and it has been added to the Hold the line entry as a comment .. I am happy about that but I did think that the editor may have commented on or acknowledged the relevance of my post ..

.. PhilH I feel you may've strayed a little away from where my thinking is .. to me you can have a line of pretty much anything .. cows, balls, cars, anything that can be arranged into a physical position one beside/behind the other .. children delight in doing it with their toys .. in fact one of the earliest examples of the development of categorical thinking is the lining up of like things .. but at what point does the physical distance between objects cause us to no longer consider the arranged items to be in line ?? .. this becomes important when considering the idea of a military line of defence because it has evolved .. the Sumerian phalanx was several lines deep .. the Roman Legions would form close packed, shoulder-to-shoulder lines behind shields that would form and reform as they were attacked .. but as weapons and tactics evolved then the line also changed .. the famous Thin Red Line of the 93rd Highland Regiment ..and as a further example the arc of fire of a machine gun allows greater distance between adjoining elements in the line .. but in all of these variations there has always been the underlying military objective, the need to hold the line ..

.. the abstract concept of the ordered human line is one that children learn from an early age and it is well and truly embedded by the time they reach formal schooling .. the teacher expressions of >> line up, get into line, form a line, in line, out of line are understood by the children without any reference to anything more tangible than a spatial relationship .. they employ these concepts in early games where lining up is an important socialising influence ..

.. all of these lines have moved away from the physical, visible, touchable line .. these lines from military to the playground are an abstract idea that can be given substance and form depending upon the immediate needs of the people employing the line .. to hold the line to my way of thinking refers to holding the substantial form of the line which we have created for our purpose .. this may be the line of scrimmage in a football game or the line of legal argument against a developer ..

WoZ who was always out of line
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Re: Hold the Line

Post by Edwin F Ashworth » Fri Apr 09, 2010 10:18 am

This example is a little later than the Sumerian phalanx, but may explain where the expression entered telephone terminology. Or not.
"Orangemen hold the line over marching" at http://www.independent.co.uk/news/orang ... ?cmp=ilc-n
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Re: Hold the Line

Post by PhilHunt » Sat Apr 10, 2010 3:04 pm

Woz, You have pleasantly surprised me with the clarity and even-handed reply to my post. I found your thoughts very interesting, especially regarding child development. My son is going through this phase of lining up all his cars so the bonnets (hoods) are all even with each other, regardless of the size differences between the cars, so it really struck home. You make a very good point there. The concrete concept of putting things in line does indeed start very early and would indeed form underlying the abstract principle which we understand today long before any understanding of measurements or instruments. I bow to the pressure of everyone’s arguments and acknowledge that my musings on "holding a Line (measuring tool)" is irrelevant to this discussion.

It is interesting to note that English has two words to communicate objects in a line. 'Line', which has a number of meanings, the earliest being a piece of twine or chord, and 'row'. Row has many dictionary entries as a noun but the gestalt concept is 'lines of things'. The etymology is:
row (1)
"line of people or things," O.E. ræw "a row, line," from P.Gmc. *rai(h)waz (cf. M.Du. rie, Du. rij "row;" O.H.G. rihan "to thread," riga "line;" Ger. Reihe "row, line, series;" O.N. rega "string"), possibly from PIE base *rei- "to scratch, tear, cut" (cf. Skt. rikhati "scratches," rekha "line").
My Chamber's dictionary gives a first print as 1200 but says it is probably much earlier. This is in contrast to 'Line' which is said to be 14 C. (Chambers 13th C.).

This aside, I still feel that there is a gestalt metaphor at work in all the expressions of ‘hold the line’. To make this clearer I wish to borrow an example from 'Metaphors We Live By', which is not a universally accepted theory, but one which I have been greatly impressed by recently. On p176 Chapter 24, a basic analysis of how we understand the world and through what means is laid out. This may go some way in answering some of the questions you raised in your post Woz and help me to explain the reasoning of my argument that follows.

Direct Immediate Understanding

Entity structure: We understand ourselves as bounded entities and we directly experience certain objects that we come into contact with as bounded entities too.

Orientational structure: We understand ourselves and other objects as having certain orientations relative to the environments we function in.

Dimensions of experience: There are dimensions of experience in terms of which we function most of the time in our direct interaction with others and with our immediate physical and cultural environment. We categorize the entities we directly encounter and direct experiences we have in terms of these categories.

Experiential gestalts: Our object and substance categories are gestalts that have at least the following dimensions: perceptual, motor activities, part/whole, functional purposive. Our categories of direct actions, activities, events and experiences are gestalts that have at least the following dimensions: participants, parts, motor activities, perceptions, stages, linear sequences (of parts), causal relations, purpose (goals/plans for actions and end state events). These constitute the natural dimensions of our direct experience. Not all of them will play a role in every kind of direct experience, but in general, most of them will play some role or other.

Background: An experiential gestalt will typically serve as a background for understanding something we experience as an aspect of that gestalt. Thus a person or object may be understood as a participant in a gestalt, and an action may be understood as part of a gestalt. One gestalt may presuppose the presence of another, which may in turn, presuppose the presence of others, and so on. The result will typically be an incredibly rich background structure necessary for a full understanding of any given situation. Most of this background structure will never be noticed, since it is presupposed in so many of our daily activities and experiences.

Highlighting: Understanding a situation as being an instance of an experiential gestalt involves picking out elements of the situation as fitting the dimensions of the gestalt – for example, picking out aspects of the experience as being participants, parts, stages, etc. This highlights those aspects of the situation and downplays or hides aspects of the situation that do not fit the gestalt.

Interactional properties: The properties we directly experience an object or event as having are products of our interactions with them in the environment. That is, they may not be inherent properties of the object or experience, but instead, interactional properties.

Prototypes: Each category is structured in terms of a prototype, and something counts as a member of the category by virtue of the family resemblances it bears to the prototype.

To help understand some of what is mentioned above I would like to look at an example which is used in the book; the apparently innocuous statement “this is a fake gun”. A basic analysis would be that a fake gun is not a real gun, but what does that mean? An orange is not a real gun, but we would not say it is a fake gun, so to understand the statement we have to accept that a fake gun must share some of the elements of a real gun but without enough of the elements for it to be considered a real gun. It could for example look like a gun but is not able to fire bullets. However, we would not say that a broken gun is a fake gun though, even though this looks like a gun but cannot fire bullets. The conclusion is that the way we understand a real gun is not because it has inherent properties but because it is understood on many different levels through interaction, experience, causal relations, etc.

This is also true of a line. Woz highlighted some of the difficulties of understanding a line when he asked at what distance to each other do objects cease to be seen as being in a line. If we have three stars, such as in Orions belt, in the sky millions of light years apart, here on earth we may still think of them as being in a line. Likewise, three buildings at a distance from each other in a desert could be said to be standing in a line but place those same three buildings in a busy town and we no longer make the connection, so we must in reality understand a line as a prototype.

A line can be a bounded entity, such as in the examples Woz gave of a line of troops being three men deep, but it is also something we instinctively think of as having orientation. A line of men will have a back and a front orientation (go to the front of the line etc..), this can change depending its interaction with the environment and our perception of that environment. If you have a line of troops facing another then the men facing outwards will be considered the front of the line and the men at either end the sides; we would not consider the back of the men’s heads as being the front of the line.

We think of a line in terms of its purpose. A line in the supermarket has an ends=front/back orientation because of its purpose, while the military line has a side=front/back due to the nature of warfare. It is also safe to say that we would not confuse these two lines in a metaphor due to the differing purposes. A military line’s purpose is to defend or move across territory, while a supermarket line is to reach a final goal, the check-out. A military line can move forward and retreat, while a supermarket line thankfully only moves forward. This sense of moving backwards and forwards across territory is what gives the military line its experiential gestalt. The line is a participant in a gestalt, while at the same time being a dimensional gestalt. I can highlight the gestalt of covering or losing or defending territory in a military context but not in a supermarket context (unless it’s a particularly violent line of shoppers, in which case we would use the military gestalt as a metaphor).

Lakff and Johnson argue that metaphors work on the same level as Direct Understanding, only in this case they are Indirect, and this is valid even for seemingly simple utterances. “The fog was in front of the mountain” seems simple enough, but it requires us to see fog and mountain as entities, give a front/back orientation to the mountain and a dimensional quality to fog. This is not a Direct Understanding but in fact an Indirect Understanding of the utterance using our understanding of physical qualities we have gained from our experiences of the world.

I have the same reaction when I see utterances such as ‘hold the line’. To understand this in a military sense we must give a front back orientation to the line, we must create a background gestalt, and we must highlight certain elements while downplaying others. In essence we have an Indirect Understanding of the utterance based on our preconceptions of the physical world, and military purpose of warfare.

‘Hold the line (open)’ in a telephonic context gives me equal problems. To understand this we must create an imagined line of communication, which is cutting through territories and spanning the distance between the caller and the receiver. In practise we know this to be a falsehood, especially in the age of satellite communication, so we have created a metaphorical entity structure and orientation. Secondly, to understand a line as being open or closed requires us to imagine an operative system in which communication flows like water down a tube, which can be closed shut. This creates two new metaphorical structures; the line is a hollow tube through which information ‘flows’ and this tube can be opened and closed to allow information to flow through it in one direction or another. Again, we have projected a structural metaphor based on our understanding of the world. The most problematic is that of 'hold', which has a multitude of meanings but in this new metaphorical structure of meaning appears to be ‘keep’, as in ‘keep the line (tube) open so as to permit information (water) to pass through it on its journey from one location to another’. Thus it could be argued that our understanding of ‘hold the line’ has no connection to military language at all as they seem to share little in terms of directional orientation, purpose or goal. However, as I mentioned earlier, a citation was given of the earliest use of ‘lines of communication’ as dating from the First World War and refers to ‘lines of communication trenches’ which allowed communication to be maintained across the battle field. I’ve found numerous texts attesting to these trenches and their function of ‘maintaining the flow of information’, and this seems to fit very nicely the metaphorical framework I constructed earlier.
Trenches are hollow conduits through which information flows (like water) from one location to another, traversing land and territory, flowing in one direction or another (but not sideways)’. I would thus like to put forward the argument that the expression ‘To hold the line’ is most likely a residual expression from the First World War possibly unconsciously adopted due to it being a pre-existing metaphorical prototype to a modern similar prototype, and this expression in turn comes from our understanding of the physical nature of water flowing through pipes; thus, our understanding of the utterance is an Indirect understanding based on our interactions with the physical world.
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Re: Hold the Line

Post by Ken Greenwald » Wed Apr 14, 2010 8:00 am

Many questions have been raised in the above postings, but I’m only addressing a few here, not because I don’t find the others interesting, but because of limitations of the hours in a day.

Erik’s above link to Word Detective along with comments from Bob, Jim, John, Harry, Phil H, Edwin, and Wiz (neglecting his mistaken 1853 quote, which was actually from 1975 – see my quote below) supply pieces of interesting evidence from which different conclusions may be drawn. Here’s my take on a few issues:

The OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY provides the following telephone definition for HOLD THE LINE – which I am not overly thrilled with. I found the other two well-known meanings of hold the line when I look up the OED’s definition of LINE (I’ll discuss these other two further on below and here continue with the telephone aspect:

HOLD THE LINE: To maintain telephonic connection during a break in conversation. [[And as Peggy Lee sang, Is That All There is? Well no it isn’t, as evidenced by the above postings and the three telephonic meaning I mention below.

I’ll continue the discussion with the telephone sense, since that was Phil H.’s original question. I believe a more informative telephone definition than that offered by the OED above would be something like:


1) Originally, a phrase uttered by an operator at a switchboard (a la Bobinwales and hsargent above) to a caller. In this situation the switchboard operator tells the caller to HOLD THE LINE (or actually hold the phone which is attached to the line) for a minute or two, or three or four, while she literally holds the line at her end or lays it aside (at the ready) to attend to other calls until the jack which the operator needs to plug into is free.

2) If one caller wanted to temporarily interrupt a telephone conversation (e.g. say to answer the doorbell or go potty), ‘hold the line’ or ‘hang on’ or ‘hang on a minute/moment’ were/are often used.
[[See HOLD THE LINE! exclamation [1920s-30s]: Wait a minute [telephone imagery]—Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang (2005) by Jonathon Green]]

3) Some time in the 1960s when telephones acquired a ‘hold button,’ anyone who had a hold button(s) could put a caller on ‘hold’ while having a conversation with a second, third, fourth, . . . caller. And, of course, the screwed party would often be politely asked (without much choice) ‘May I put you on hold for a minute,’ ‘Please hold the line’ or ‘Please hang on a minute’ or perhaps more abruptly “I’m putting you on hold” (whether you like it or not, buddy!).

Below are listed some early examples I dug up from archived sources (the oldest being from 1885) using the telephone meanings of HOLD THE LINE.
<1885 “What is the reason for it? You must be annoying the telephone girls. [If] ever a Federal M.P. books a call, they say, ‘Just hold the line,’ and they get the line in three or four minutes. I do not know why. That is my point.”— Parliamentary Debates, Volume 57, Issues 13-19, page 3309>

<1896 “For instance, the telephone boy had been in the habit of replying, ‘Hold the line, while I call Mr. Blank,’ was shown how this habit of ‘holding the line often shut out good customers desiring to enter through the telephone door during the time that the house wire was linked to the wire of the caller, thus limiting the serviceability of the telephone. By securing the caller’s name and the number of his telephone, and giving a promise to have Mr. Blank ‘ring up’ the caller, when there was any doubt of Mr. B. being unable to immediately respond to the call, the telephone boy effected a marked economy in the total number of minutes that the telephone would be ‘hung up’ that is, closed to others during the day.”— Telephone Magazine, Vol.7, page 280>

<1899 “When individual is asked for, the recalling party is requested to ‘hold the line’ while the attendant goes away to summon the man.”—Modern Machinery, Vol. 91, page 91>

<1902 “Say, Jack, hold the line for a minute till I speak to the man in the store. Yes, certainly, of course, I did think —Hello, there, Jack, I cannot hold the line any longer. The clerk says most of their business is done by phone, and the doctors complain if they cannot get the line.”—Bulletin of Pharmacy, Vol.16, page 220>

<1906 “A call comes over toll for a city party and the toll operator in the city exchange assigns a trunk and inserts the plug. The toll operator can hold the line for five or ten minutes. When the toll party is ready, she simply rings on the circuit and the apparatus relays the generator current on the subscriber’s circuit; the bell rings, and the party answers.”—Telephony Vol. 11, page 219>

<1907 “Referring to the local operation of the line that all stations may have equal opportunity to establish calls, a ruling is enforced that no two stations, under equal conditions, shall be allowed to hold the line to establish more than six calls or for a time period of thirty consecutive minutes.”—The American Telephone Journal, Vol.16, page 7>

<1914 Hullo! Who’s this? Frohman’s. Well, can you tell me the present whereabouts of a Mrs. J. S. Wright, who was with Frohman company that played the Prisoner of Zenda at Chicago two years ago? Yes, I’ll hold the line. (Under his breath.) You bet your life I will. Hullo! She left the stage in January 1903, and – What’s that?”—Long Distance by Lewis Orlando Faulkland>

<1925 “‘Hello, is Mr, Reepley there? . . . Oh, he isn’t? He has just gone to the drug store? . . . Very well, I will hold the line.’”—New York Timed, 21 June, page BR14>

<1969 “The Victorian Chamber of Manufacturers has criticised Australians for bad manners when answering telephones. In its weekly service bulletin, the chamber cited ‘infuriating examples of telephonic bad manners' of people in business houses. . . . . . . .Next came the switchboard girl answering: ‘XYZ Company, hold the line please,’ without asking if it was convenient for the caller to hold on.”—The Age (Melbourne, Australia), 22 July, page 6>

<1992 “Now that Nicholas Soames had access to a ministerial Montego, what will happen to Sutton, his old chauffeur? According to Soames sister, Emman, the admirable Sutton would answer Soames car phone in the manner of a country butler, asking callers to hold the line while he saw if Sir was in.”—Daily Telegraph>

The other two popular meanings of HOLD THE LINE mentioned above are:

a) Holding the line militarily, where I’ll arbitrarily call this line a physical or literal sense of LINE such as a military line of soldiers, fortifications, trenches, etc. in which a physical line of something or other exists. Other common literal senses of lines are goal lines, tennis sidelines, etc., but these aren’t necessarily something to be ‘held.’

b) Holding the line figuratively applies where no actual physical line exists such as the line of scrimmage in football (but it could be argued that this is a physical line of sorts – see OED comment on this below), as well as to other nonliteral lines that are to be held, such as things like cost, wages, inflation, traffic congestion, nepotism, etc. Figurative senses of HOLD THE LINE are discussed further below along with associated quotes.

The OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY provides the following relevant definition of LINE (among many others) as well as the definition of HOLD THE LINE:

LINE:: In various games, as tennis, football, etc., the line denotes a particular line which marks the limit of legitimate or successful play; in Cricket, the line of flight of the ball from the bowler's hand, Also in phrase (taken from American football, but influenced by sense 20b) to hold the line to maintain, support a position, viewpoint, etc. [20b “In the war of 1914-18, the trenches collectively; the front line.] [[It should be noted that in the OED for the quotes which follows this definition, every example of HOLD THE LINE is in the figurative sense]].

I’m not quite sure why the OED provided a 1956 quote for hold the line as their earliest figurative example (as mentioned in Erik’s above Word Detective posting). But this was from the 1989 edition when searching was a lot harder.
<1956 “But 52nd Street couldn’t hold the line against Negroes forever.”—Lady Sings the Blues by Billie Holiday, xi. page 102>

Note that “to maintain, support a position, viewpoint, etc.” is a very nice definition for HOLD THE LINE, since it actually encompasses both the military/literal and figurative meanings in one fell swoop.

Also, but this is no big deal, I think that it makes sense to say that the line being held in the football hold the line (line of scrimmage) is figurative, since it is an imaginary line (perpendicular to the sidelines and passing through one end of the football, and consists of nothing material), although some may argue otherwise (but it’s no earth-shattering either way).

Here’s the Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary’s take on the military meanings of LINE [[and I chose them instead of the OED definitions because they are short and sweet and you all know how much I love being short and sweet! (<;)]]

LINE (military):

a) A defensive position or front.
b) A series of fortifications (e.g. the Maginot line).
c) A distribution of troops, sentries, etc. for the defense of a position or for an attack: behind enemy lines.

The OED’s earliest use of the word LINE (in the senses under discussion) was nautical with respect to a ‘line of ships’ (1704). Their earliest military use appeared in the phrase, ‘battle flew on the lofty British line’ (1801).

The following are some early quotes from archived sources using HOLD THE LINE in the military sense of maintaining a military position. The earliest quote I could find using this meaning was from 1832:
<1832 “When Sir David Baird had established himself in Villa Manian, it appeared to him to be of the first importance to hold the line of the Upper Eslar, till the march of Sir John Moore by the more circuitous route through Benevente was secured, . . .”—The Life of General, the Right Honourable Sir David Baird, Bart, Vol. 2, page 305>

<1846 “Some writers, Rogniat among the number, have blamed the Emperor for persisting to hold the line of the Elbe during the Autumn campaign of which we have been speaking.”—The fall of Napoleon: An Historical Memoir By John Mitchell, Vol. 2, page 246>

<1859 “. . . the French arriving by the Alps were to hold the line . . . thus covering Turin.”—Newport Daily News (Rhode Island), 26 May, page 2>

<1869 “I was walking down the hill to the gate of the arsenal, whither our regiment had been withdrawn, after a picket guard had been detailed and sent out to hold the line of Bolivar Heights.”—Putnam's Monthly Magazine of American Literature, Science and Art, Vol. 13, Issue 16, April, page 447>

<1889 “THE MEN WHO Held THE LINE: The battle is done; the smoke-veiled sun / Creeps low to a misty West / . . . /Lift proud the head—O living and dead! / You have compassed Heaven’s design! / In every zone you shall e’er be known / As the men who held the line.”— Star Sentinel (Gettysburg, Pennsylvania), 2 July, page 1>

As for the nontelephone, nonmilitary figurative uses of HOLD THE LINE (e.g. economics, sexually explicit remarks, prices, inflation …..– see list of quotes below), its origin has been attributed to American football as well as the military – see dictionary definitions below. But the military origin seems so much more likely and existed way before football (see Wiz’s comments above), although indications are that this view is probably wrong!

But the big boys such as Word Detective’s Evan Morris, Picturesque Expressions Laurence Urdang, New York Times word maven William Safire claim that the figurative sense did originate in football (see below). And even the OED (see above) said “Also in phrase (taken from American football, but influenced by sense [[the trenches of WWI]]) to HOLD THE LINE.”

I believe what the above mavens were getting at is that the most direct, immediate, and important influence on the figurative form (1859 and next seen in the late 19th century), a form which later spawned the many 20th-century figurative usages, was the football expression, even though the military (1832) and early figurative (1859) expression preceded it. And the 1859 example appears to be a bit of an early outlier, since the following figurative quotes were from somewhat later.

Similarly the OED made the comment above, that the use of LINE in HOLD THE LINE from American football was also influenced by its military use in WWI. But, of course, it appeared in military use long before that (see the 19th century military quotes below), but it was probably its WWI use which helped popularize it and not the earlier military use (which perhaps was not heard that much outside of the military).

Here’s what William Safire had to say about one figurative use in SAFIRE’S POLITICAL DICTIONARY (2008), page 319:

HOLD THE LINE: Government efforts to restrain the economy; anti-inflation moves. [[Note: This is just one example from politics in the sea of possible figurative usages in other areas]] .

“Four months after he became president, Harry Truman issued an Executive Order gradually relaxing controls over prices, wages, and production as the wartime economy made its transition to peace. This became known as the ‘hold-the-line’ order. ‘Holding the line against inflation’ remains a cliché, taken from a football metaphor (‘Hold that line!’) [[a cursory search found an early use of this cheer in 1898]], which in turn comes from a military expression (a line of soldiers trying to prevent and enemy breakthrough).”

PICTURESQUE EXPRESSIONS (1998) by Laurence Urdang

HOLD THE LINE: To try to prevent a situation from becoming uncontrollable or unwieldy; to maintain the status quo. This Americanism probably comes from the game of football. It is frequently heard in an economic context, as in “to hold the line on taxes” or “to hold the line on prices.


HOLD THE LINE: Maintain the existing position or state of affairs. For example, We’ll have to hold the line on spending until our profits rise. This term alludes to former military tactics, in which a line of troops was supposed to prevent an enemy breakthrough. Eventually it was transferred to civilian enterprises. [Mid-1900s] [[Note: The less careful Christine Ammer just ain’t good at origins and dates although she does excel at definitions and example sentences]].

Here are some quotes from archived sources for HOLD THE LINE using the figurative (nonmilitary) sense defined above [Note that Wiz’s 1853 New York Times quote is actually from 1975 (see my 1975 quote below)]:
<1859 “In the unequal contest the citizen with the government, it is his right, to the last breath in his body, to hold the line . . . and standing there, to insist that law shall be administered with all the forms . . . of legal justice.”— Circuit Court of the United States. Massachusetts District (1878), October Term, 1859, page 48>

<1882 “The Court—The counsel is assuming that the court has assumed something against his client. The court has assumed nothing of the sort. The court merely rules on the pertinency of the evidence. I must hold the lines to the limit of proper evidence in a case like this.”—New York Times, 27 December, page 2>

<1890 “As Governor, Blanton has held the line on state spending, worked to expand the State's tourist industry, lobbied for public service jobs for unemployed citizens . . .”—Tennessee Blue Book, page 12>

<1924 “The inevitable subdivisions have appeared, but an ever-watchful citizens’ association and a number of unofficial ‘planning groups’ have held the line on preserving the character of the community.”—Maryland Conservationist, Vol. 41-43‎, page 16>

<1940 “. . . our organization must hold the line on normal community service to children in education, recreation, social service and medical care.”–Chicago Tribune, 14 July, page C2>

<1942 “Without price control the other elements cannot be put into play; and only as the other elements are made effective can we count on continuing to hold the line on prices.”—New York Times, 28 July, page 10>

<1957 “The program in Battle Creek this year has been one of ‘holding the line.’ A full-time replacement for the supervisor who resigned just at the opening of the year was not found. Part-time supervision was not found. Part-time supervision was provided, but some of the usual promotional activities were necessarily curtailed.”—The President's Report to the Board of Regents for the Academic Year 1955-1956, University of Michigan, Vol. 58, No. 69, 11 January, page 241>

<1967 “There were also undisguised rumblings for bigger pay packets from the rank and file that may make it difficult for Wilson to hold the line on wage increases.”—Time Magazine, 1 December>

<1975 “‘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 100,000 New York City children and their families with a network of neighborhood centers, camps, foster-care and adoption services, and medical, educational, and recreational programs.”—New York Times, 12 October, page 45>

<1995 “Bishop Robert Lowth gave in on than whom but held that Shakespeare made a mistake, and the grammarian’s followers have been trying to hold the line against the rising tide of spoken usage ever since.”—New York Times, On Language, 16 April, page SM16>

The following are some quotes from archived sources that use HOLD THE LINE in the football sense:

<1891 “Jefferis weighs 201 and each of the others 180. They hold the line well and break through when occasion requires.”—Chicago Daily Tribune, 14 November, page 7>

<1893 “The most glaring defect was that the center men failed to hold the line long enough to enable the quarterback to pass the ball.”—Boston Daily Globe, 29 October, page 16>

<1895 “They held the line well and the kicking . . . and tackling and rushing . . . were excellent.”— Chicago Tribune, September, page 7>

<1896 “Chamberlain even now, lacking in experience as he is, holds the opposing line in good shape, and gets the ball back to the quarter quickly and with a good degree of certainty.”—Boston Daily Globe, 18 October, page 28>

<1899 “It will be unnecessary to do more than suggest how [coach] Clayton was simply dumbfounded when he saw his first long kickoff caught by the veteran full-back . . and carried forward with express speed . . . ; how the spectators looked on in silent amazement at this unexpected beginning; . . . .How Clayton called his men to one side and rebuked them, and told them just what to do, and found, to his disgust, that when they had done it, it was just the wrong thing to do; how they could not hold the line against the fury of the scrub team; . . .”—St. Nicholas: A Monthly Magazine for Boys and Girls, Volume 26, Part 2, page 588-589>

<1900 “The right guard, Morris, was a pitiable sight as, with white, drawn face he stood up under the terrific assault, staggering, with half-closed eyes, to hold the line.”—The Half-Back: A Story of School, Football, and Golf‎ by R. H. Barbour, page 258>

<1905 “But these are all the seasoned players to hold the line, and this will leave a great chance for strong men to make the team at New Haven if they are capable in all other respects.”— Galveston Daily News (Texas), 1 October, page 6>

<1917 “On July 24 the football squad left the . . . aerodrome . . . for its first big game. With nervous pats on the nearest shoulders and admonitions to ‘hold the line now boy—keep your formation together!’”—U.S. Air Services, Vol. 3-4, page 24>

Incidentally, American football as far as I can make out was the offspring of rugby (1864 earliest OED rugby quote, but that’s a bit late according to other references I’ve seen – see below) and in the beginning different groups and organizations followed different rules with little uniformity among them. Also, the game was constantly evolving and at one point a team consisted of 20 players and at another 15 and then finally 11. The first U.S. intercollegiate football game (Rutgers vs. Princeton) was played in 1869.

The ‘line of scrimmage’ was defined by the intercollegiate rules committee in 1880, authored by Walter Camp (often called “the father of American football”). For a fascinating look at early football take a look at Walter Camp and Lorin Deland’s books titled Football (1896) and Camp’s American Football (1894).

Here’s an interesting thought, but could some other American football or rugby ‘line’ (not ‘goal,’ or ‘side’) have been a figurative football or rugby term before the ‘line of scrimmage’ was the ‘line’ of HOLD THE LINE.’ And a possibility that I came up with was RUSH LINE).

Earlier there had been the ‘scrummage’ or ‘scrum’ which, as far a I could make out, was a group of players facing each other on either side of the ball ready to pounce. The above-mentioned book refers to a RUSH-LINE (but doesn’t provide dates), which I took to be the leading line of facing players in the scrum (the whole batch of opposing players). The implication here, I think, is that there were two ‘rush-lines,’ one for each team and that it wasn’t till the line of scrimmage was adopted in 1880 that the use of the expression rush line started to go the way of the dodo bird. But this was not instantaneous (see post-1880 ‘rush line’ quotes below).

But were these ‘rush-lines’ something that a team would want to hold? Seems to me it could have been and if this were true, it would seem that there might have been the expression HOLD THE RUSH LINE. Of course, I don’t know diddly-squat about rugby or American football (never played or followed either) so bear with me if I have made some obviously dumb statements concerning American football and rugby.

In a search to see if HOLD THE RUSH LINE did exist, I found that it did and this implied that perhaps it was a predecessor and contributor to the American football HOLD THE LINE.

So what does this tell us about the origin of the figurative meaning of HOLD THE LINE. It could, of course, have been patterned after the military expression (earliest quote – 1832) as some believe, although the word and phrase heavyweights above believe it probably came from football and the line of scrimmage. But, on the other hand, if there was a football/rugby HOLD THE RUSH LINE that predated the ‘line of scrimmage’s HOLD THE LINE then it is possible that football or rugby was the immediate predecessor of American football’s HOLD THE LINE. I would note, however, that the mavens opinion could be a case of follow-the-leader from the OED.

However, the OED’s earliest quote for rugby is 1864 (which is a bit late according to other sources ). What appears to be a well-researched Wikipedia article talks about rugby union (a form of rugby) originating in England in the early 19th century and dates in the 1820s and 1840s are mentioned. Another short, less well-researched Wikipedia article (no foot notes), talks about rugby football (another form of rugby) and also tosses around dates from the first half of the 19th century. Which all leads to the conclusion that the nonfootball figurative meaning of HOLD THE LINE (1859) could possibly have been patterned after the early military expression (1832) or an earlier football/rugby expression.

Digging a bit deeper, I found that before football’s line of scrimmage, there had been the ‘scrummage’ or ‘scrum’ which, as far a I could make out, was a group of players facing each other on either side of the ball ready to pounce. The above-mentioned books refers to a RUSH-LINE which I took to be the leading line of facing players in the scrum (the whole batch of opposing players). The implication here, I think is that there were two ‘rush-lines.’ But are either of these ‘rush-lines’ something that a team would want to hold? Seems to me it could have been. Of course, I don’t know diddly-squat about rugby or American football (never played or followed either) so don’t take some of my blathering here as anything close to gospel. But I did find a few HOLD THE RUSH LINES, which could have been a precursor of HOLD THE LINE (see quotes below).

Here is a brief primer on HOLD THE RUSH LINE:

The OED defined ‘rush’ as follows, with its earliest quote being from 1857:

RUSH noun: Rugby and North American Football. An attempt by one or more players, especially the forwards, to force the ball through the opponents' line and towards their goal. Also, a player who is skilled in this.

<1857 “Then follows rush upon rush and scrummage upon scrummage. Ibid. Don't give the rush a chance of reaching you!”—Tom Brown’s School Days by Thomas Hughes, I, v>
[[note that 1857 comes before 1864 (the OED’s earliest rugby quote)]]

RUSH LINE: Combined form [[see above] with the OED’s earliest quote being from 1887. The quotes below are from the OED and archived sources My earliest find was from 1881 (see below).
Note: I think all of these quotes refer to American football but I’m not certain.

<1881 “The object of Arush-line is to prevent (merely by the interposition or their bodies, in no case by holding) Brush line’ from getting to the quarter or half-backs in time to interfere with their getting the ball, or immediately subsequent action. When A rush-line can hold B no longer, they go down on the B backs in order to paralyse their actions if the A backs kick over.”—The Merchistonian, page 95>

<1881 “The men in the Adelbert rush line, however, failed to block their opponents. Oberlin gained much ground by tackling the backs before they had a chance to run. . . .Oberlin’s rush line played a strong game, blocking well and playing together.”—The Oberlin ReviewVolume 19, page 93>

<1882 “. . . a Yale or Princeton rush line will be very different from the men on our Second Eleven, and the men block well.”—The Crimson, Volumes 19-20‎, page 55> [[talking American football]]

<1884 “But a few minutes of the first half remained when Richards got the ball, ran through the Harvard rush line, dodged the halfbacks and back and made a touchdown square behind the goal.” New York Times, 23 November>

<1887 “Across the field stretch the football infantry, the ‘rush-line’ or ‘rushers.’”—Century Magazine, XXXI. page 891/2> [[The OED's earliest]]

<1890 “Yale, on the other hand, played a very poor game for her, and were careless back of the rush line.”—Outing: An Illustrated Monthly Magazine of Sport, Travel, and Recreation, Vol. xv. page 37>

<1891 “Princeton's rush line is where she needs material and plenty of it.”—Harper's Weekly, 19 September, 715/3>

<1923 The unlucky young men who were left in his wake when he tore through a rush-line. The unlucky young men who were left in his wake when he tore through a rush-line.”—Comrades of the Rolling Ocean by R.D. Paine, i. page 3>

<1976 “RUSH LINE, the defensive line of a football team.”—Webster's Sports Dictionary Webster's Sports Dictionary.” page 365/1>[[Ah so!]]

And by golly (as we sophisticates say) I did find early examples of HOLD THE RUSH LINE
Note: Again I think that all the following quotes refer to American football but am not certain.

<1887 “The inability to hold the rush line well was the greatest fault but they will take away with them a stronger one.”— The Michigan Argonaut, Volume 6, page 53>‎

<1895 “Couldn’t Hold the Rush Line: The football game between the Orange athletic club and the Chicago athletic association . . . was won by the former by a score of 24 to 0. The Chicago men were on the defensive all the time. They seemed unable to withstand the heavy onrush of the Orange line.”—Boston Globe, 6 November, page 3>

<1908 Unless you have been there, you cannot conceive throbbing excitement . . . ; the maddening exhilaration of a ‘rush’ when strong arms and legs are at a premium; the exultation when it is discovered that the opposing team cannot hold the rush line; .. .”— The Preshus Child by Belle T. McCahan, page 82>

Note that my earliest example of HOLD THE RUSH LINE (1887) does precede HOLD THE LINE (1891) by a bit.

So what’s the bottom line on HOLD THE LINE? The answer seems to involve a whole lot of speculation, which I here try to summarize:

1) The telephone expression derived from neither military nor its figurative offsprings but from the physical line connected to a telephone.

2) The 1859 figurative (nonfootball) meaning was probably an outlier (with quotes next appearing in 1882 and 1890, but popularized by American football’s line of scrimmage (1891) and also influenced by the WWI (1914-1918) use of the military expression.

3) The figurative football meaning (1891) – the line being the line of scrimmage – probably came from the military (1832) and could have been influenced by HOLD THE RUSH LINE (1887) of American football and/or rugby, or even from the earlier (1859, 1882, 1890) figurative form (but that seems unlikely).

NOTE: From what I have found in my wanderings in researching this posting is that the early days of football and rugby are not that well-documented, especially as far as dates are concerned So, I would highly recommend restraint in betting any money on them.

Ken – April 13, 2010
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Re: Hold the Line

Post by trolley » Wed Apr 14, 2010 4:26 pm

Good to read ya, Ken. I was hoping you were OK. I think you've researched the hell out of that one.
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Re: Hold the Line

Post by PhilHunt » Thu Apr 15, 2010 12:38 pm

That was a sterling bit of research Ken.
I was very interested that you found a quote from Telephone Magazine which actually demonstrates the way in which people think of the telephone line as a conduit through which information passes. However, rather than using my 'tube/water' analogy, the writer has opted for the simple analogy of moving from room to room and being blocked by doors. The basic principle is the same and it again goes to show how our abstract understanding of the way in which telephones work is grounded in our basic understanding of the physical world.
<1896 “For instance, the telephone boy had been in the habit of replying, ‘Hold the line, while I call Mr. Blank,’ was shown how this habit of ‘holding the line often shut out good customers desiring to enter through the telephone door during the time that the house wire was linked to the wire of the caller, thus limiting the serviceability of the telephone. By securing the caller’s name and the number of his telephone, and giving a promise to have Mr. Blank ‘ring up’ the caller, when there was any doubt of Mr. B. being unable to immediately respond to the call, the telephone boy effected a marked economy in the total number of minutes that the telephone would be ‘hung up’ that is ,closed to others during the day.”— Telephone Magazine, Vol.7, page 280>
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Re: Hold the Line

Post by trolley » Thu Apr 15, 2010 5:15 pm

Hmmm, Phil. Now I'm not so sure I can hold the line on my original theory that the telephone phrase evolved on a different branch from military one, which led to the sporting and business sense. I still think it's likely that the "line" you were expected to hold referred to the wire connecting the reciever to the phone. You needed to hold it, instead of placing it back on the hook, but, your quote certainly does have a sense of maintaining or defending a position against an intruder.......
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Re: Hold the Line

Post by PhilHunt » Fri Apr 16, 2010 1:17 pm

??? I think you've misunderstood what I was saying trolley.
I do not think that the military sense of 'hold the line' is the same as the telephonic sense for the reasons I explained in my long post above. I'll recap briefly.

1) The military line has a front/back orientation, two ends and no depth. It is a barrier. It can move backwards/forwards across territory.

2) The telephonic line is a channel through which information passes. It has a metaphoric hollow space [depth] (like a tube or a corridor) through which information can pass in one direction (but not sideways). The channel can be 'closed' or 'held' to stop information from passing through it. The line does not move, rather the information passes through it.

The sense of 'holding a moveable barrier firm against an attack' is, I think, different enough from 'holding a motionless channel shut to stop information from passing through' to say they are different metaphorical structures.

You are right though. It does appear that we have come full circle and that 'holding the line' appears to be a physical action performed by the caller.
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