The Grammarphobia Blog

Line drawings

Q: I hear politicians talk a lot about drawing lines in the sand, which makes me wonder how we got this expression. It seems to me that a line in the sand could easily be erased – not a very good metaphor for issuing an ultimatum.

A: There are at least two theories about what historical incident, if any, inspired the expression “line in the sand.”

A Line in the Sand: The Alamo in Blood and Memory, the title of a book by Randy Roberts and James S. Olson, refers to one theory, which the authors say may be far-fetched and then again may not be.

In 1836, as the small band of Texans in the Alamo was about to be overrun by Santa Anna and his Mexican forces, Col. William Travis drew a line in the sand with his sword, according to this version of history.

Col. Travis, so the story goes, then invited those who wished to fight and die with him to cross the line. All but one did, supposedly the guy who lived to tell the tale, which was later passed on by others.

Another line in the sand was drawn some years before the Alamo – 168 BC, in fact. The Roman historian Livy writes of a meeting in Egypt between King Antiochus IV of Syria and a Roman Consul, Gaius Popilius Laenas.

Popilius, who was trying to prevent a war between Syria and Egypt, told Antiochus in effect that the Roman Senate wanted him to get his army out of Egypt or else. Here Livy describes the scene:

“Popilius, stern and imperious as ever, drew a circle round the king with the stick he was carrying and said, ‘Before you step out of that circle give me a reply to lay before the senate.’ “

For a few moments, Antiochus hesitated, “astounded at such a peremptory order, and at last replied, ‘I will do what the Senate thinks right.’ Not till then did Popilius extend his hand to the king as to a friend and ally.”

The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t state an opinion as to what might have inspired the phrase. It defines “(to draw) a line in the sand” as meaning “(to establish) a limit or boundary; (to specify) a level of tolerance or a point beyond which one will not go.”

The OED’s first published citation for the expression is from a December 1950 issue of the Washington Post: “He drew a line in the sand with the toe of his boot, and said, ‘It’s as though I told you I can punch you in the nose, but you can’t reach across that line to hit me back.’ “

The dictionary describes the usage in this example as figurative, but it’s uncertain from the excerpt whether the toe of the boot is drawing a literal or metaphorical line in the sand.

Fred R. Shapiro, editor of The Yale Book of Quotations, cites a clearly figurative usage from a July 1978 issue of Newsweek: “Brzezinski is more eager to draw a line in the sand and dare the Russians to cross it.”

In recent years, the expression has been used numerous times and has become a near cliché among journalists. Take out the sand, and the expression is even more common – and older.

The OED says that in modern colloquial usage “to draw the line” (or “to draw a line”) means “to lay down a definite limit of action beyond which one refuses to go.”

The first citation in the OED comes from the trial in 1773 of a Scottish Unitarian minister, Thomas Fyshe Palmer, who was found guilty of sedition and sent to Botany Bay for circulating a political handbill calling for parliamentary reform.

One of the judges said (I’m supplying a bit more of the quotation from the transcript): “It is difficult to draw the line between trying to inflame the people against the King … and endeavouring to overthrow not only the King, but the King, Lords, and Commons, which cannot be a lesser crime.”

The expression was probably in use well before that. Somehow I doubt that Lord Eskgrove, the Scottish judge in the Palmer case, made it up.

More recently, the first President Bush issued a line-drawing ultimatum of his own after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990: ”A line has been drawn in the sand.” I wouldn’t be surprised if he was thinking of the Alamo.

The President’s son, George W., definitely had the Alamo on his mind when he used the expression in a fund-raising letter opposing Ann Richards’s election as Governor of Texas in 1990, as William Safire pointed out in the New York Times.

“When Col. Travis drew the line in the sand at the Alamo,” the younger Bush reportedly said, “he discovered immediately who had the courage to stand and fight for the Texas Republic.”

Buy our books at a local store, Amazon.com, or Barnes&Noble.com.