English idioms: how they get distorted

The other day, a friend asked, “How do you spell towing the line as in the sense of complying? Is it toing or towing?

This is just one of many examples of how idioms become distorted over time.

The correct spelling, to answer my friend, is toeing.

The original idiom stems from a literal situation. Athletes were required to stand behind the starting line, literally with their feet (toes) properly behind the line, so that no athlete would have an advantage over the other. Others say, it refers to barefoot sailors standing to attention. Either way, a toe is definitely involved.

It always helps to understand the origins of the metaphor to be able to spell it correctly.

Here are some other idiomatic phrases that have been confused over time and often incorrectly used.

Do you give someone free rein or free reign? The latter usually refers to person of royalty ie king or queen who would reign over their people. It’s horses, however, that wear reins.

You often hear the phrase rein in. This means to tame or pull back, so if you want to say free rein, which means the opposite, think of horses.

Do you say chomping at the bit, or champing at the bit? The temptation to say chomping is great as it seems to make sense. For the origin, It’s down to horses again, the meaning literally to chew on a metal mouthpiece, translates to impatience or eagerness.

It’s widely held that “chomp” is a variant of the older “champ.” They both mean noisily chewing on something, but “champ” is the term that has long been associated with this idiom, in the tradition of English history.


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Iza Grek

Iza is an award-winning journalist. She has worked in advertising and communications for more than 20 years. A Word or 2 has been in operation since October 2014 and continues to thrive, serving customers writing and editing services across the board from blogs to speeches and e-books.