linguistics and lexicography Love English

Stories behind Words: red line

www.wordle.netIf you saw a line would you cross it? To do so might have serious consequences, as Chandler discovered when he kissed Joey’s girlfriend in series 4 of Friends:

Chandler: I have no excuses. I was totally over the line.
Joey: Over the line? You … you … you’re so far past the line that you can’t even see the line! The line is a dot to you!

The concept of the line as a metaphorical boundary is a rich and longstanding one. To cross a line is to go beyond accepted limits or standards of behaviour.

What if the line is a line drawn in the sand? A line in the sand is a warning that contains an implied threat. Crossing a line in the sand means laying yourself open to harm. The person who has drawn that line will hurt you if you cross it.

But now we have red lines too (the earliest use with this meaning seems to date back to the 1970s). When the President of the United States sets out his red lines everyone pays attention. They know that to cross a red line has even more drastic consequences than crossing a line in the sand, since red is the colour of danger and of blood. It is the colour of the coats of Kipling‘s “thin red line of ‘eroes” at the Battle of Balaclava in 1854. It is also the colour of pen traditionally used by teachers to mark wrong answers, and by bank employees to mark areas on a map whose residents are considered to be a poor risk. This cluster of metaphors suggests that crossing a red line is a very bad idea indeed.

Browse the archive of Stories behind Words and get in touch if you’d like to suggest a word/phrase for the series. We’d love to hear from you!

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Liz Potter

Liz Potter

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