English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Why did Johnny walk the line?

Q: What is “the line” that Johnny Cash walked and Eddie and the Cruisers walked on down? There is the obvious geometric sense and the implication of faithfulness or doing right, but the usage seems to vary in American popular culture.

A: The noun “line” has taken on quite a lot of senses since it showed up in Anglo-Saxon times and meant a rope or string, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Today, it can mean a line on a piece of paper, a railway line, a line of work, a power line, a pickup line, a line of products, a foul line in sports, a defensive line on the battlefield, a line of people, a line of a musical staff, a bookmaker’s line, and so on.

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says the English word is ultimately derived from linea, Latin for linen thread and the source of the English noun “linen.”

The noun “line” has taken on even more meanings in such expressions as “draw the line” (18th century, to lay down a limit beyond which one won’t tolerate or act) and “hold the line” (20th century, to maintain a position or a viewpoint).

As for the expressions you’re asking about, let’s begin with the beginning of the 1956 Johnny Cash song “I Walk the Line”:

I keep a close watch on this heart of mine
I keep my eyes wide open all the time
I keep the ends out for the tie that binds
Because you’re mine, I walk the line

As you’ve noted, in the Cash song the expression “to walk the line” means to be faithful. That’s how he explained it in a Feb. 26, 2010, interview with NPR: “It was kind of a prodding to myself to play it straight, Johnny.”

[Update, Jan. 16, 2015. A reader writes to point out that the song Sixteen Tons, first recorded by Merle Travis in 1946 and later by Tennessee Ernie Ford in 1955, uses the same expression. One stanza, as recorded by Travis, ends, “Aint no high-tone woman make me walk the line.”]

Where does this usage come from?

We couldn’t find any entries for “walk the line” in the OED, standard dictionaries, or authoritative slang dictionaries.

However, we’ve found many examples from as far back as the 1700s of the expression used in the sense of being faithful.

For example, Masonic Miscellanies, a 1797 collection of Masonic poetry and prose collected by Stephen Jones, includes these lines:

To the secret and the silent,
To all Masons who walk the line,
To him that did the Temple rear,
To each true and faithful heart,
That still preserves the sacred art.

As for “Boardwalk Angel,” the John Cafferty song from the 1983 film Eddie and the Cruisers, here’s the stanza that caught your attention:

The world has let you down and it broke your heart
But tonight’s the night for a brand new start
We’ll leave the world behind
We’ll go walking on down the line
Come on girl, let’s make our dream come true

The expression “down the line” is often used literally, meaning from one end to the other, as in down a line of troops or down a railway line.

Here’s an OED example from Tony, an 1898 children’s book by the English novelist Florence Montgomery: “A few stations down the line.”

The expression is also used figuratively in the sense of complete, as in this OED example from the June 9, 1962, issue of the Economist: “Mr. Yarborough described himself as a ‘down-the-line supporter’ of President Kennedy.”

However, Cafferty doesn’t seem to be using “down the line” either way in his lyrics for “Boardwalk Angel.” Two other uses of the phrase make more sense to us.

The Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms says the expression is usually spoken and means in the future. It gives this example: “Waiting even a year to put money into your retirement account can make a big difference down the line.”

So according to Cambridge, a statement like “We’ll go walking on down the line” could mean “We’ll go walking on into the future.”

Green’s Dictionary of Slang offers another possible explanation of the lyric. It says the verb phrase “go down the line” means “to make an effort, to commit oneself.” This sounds a lot like the way Johnny Cash used “walk the line.”

Here’s an example from a 1955 novel by Budd Schulberg based on the screenplay he wrote for On the Waterfront (1954): “I go down the line for them and the Doyle crowd still treat me like a bum, Terry thought bitterly.”

So, according to Green’s, “We’ll go walking on down the line” could mean something like “We’ll be committed to each other.”

Sorry we can’t be more definite here. We’ve asked John Cafferty, the guy who wrote “Boardwalk Angel,” for the final word on this, but we haven’t heard from him yet.

In the meantime, let’s say “We’ll go walking on down the line” means something like “We’ll be faithful to each other as we walk on into the future.”

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