National Geographic Daily News

Word In the News

red line

By Roff Smith · National Geographic · Published September 4, 2013

Sometime in the next week or so the world will finally learn one way or the other what it means to cross a red line. A little over a year ago President Obama warned Syrian authorities that for them to use chemical weapons in their ongoing civil war would be to cross a red line. "That would change my calculus. That would change my equation," he said at the time.

Now the Syrian Army appears to have done precisely what he warned them not to do. According to the U.S. government's reckoning, some 1,429 people – including 426 children – were killed by deadly sarin gas during a rocket attack by the Syrian Army on August 21: a pretty specific crossing of the red line. As a result, red lines and the likely consequences of crossing them have been much in the news. Just this week, at a news conference in Stockholm, Obama declared: "I didn't set a red line. The world set a red line."

Origins

The phrase "red line" appears to be an adaptation of a much older metaphor—a "line drawn in the sand," according to Ben Yagoda, a professor of English and journalism at the University of Delaware. One of the earliest recorded instances of anyone drawing a line in the sand took place in ancient Rome around 168 B.C., during a conflict that, curiously enough, involved Syria. A Roman envoy named Popillius was sent to tell King Antiochus IV to abort his attack on Alexandria. When Antiochus tried to play for time, Popillius drew a line in the sand around him and told him he had to decide what he was going to do before he crossed it. He acceded to the Roman demands.

But just how the venerable line in the sand came to be red is a little unclear. One possibility is that a pundit borrowed the idea of the warning line on a gauge beyond which it is unsafe to rev up the machinery. Another explanation comes from the Battle of Balaclava on October 24, 1854, when the hopelessly outnumbered Sutherland Highlanders, the 93rd Highland Regiment, were told by their commander Sir Colin Campbell: "There is no retreat from here, men. You must die where you stand." And so they stood firm, wearing their scarlet tunics and awaiting the charge. In his breathless account of the battle, London Times correspondent William Russell wrote that all that remained between the charging Russians and the British regiment's base of operations was "a thin red streak tipped with steel."

Historic/Literary References

There are a couple of well-known early American references to the line in the sand. In Tom Sawyer (1876) Tom draws such a line with his big toe and dared another boy to cross it (spoiler alert: he did). Colonel William Travis drew a fateful line in the sand at the Alamo in 1836, asking volunteers to cross the line and join him in remaining to fight despite hopeless odds.

The courage and steadfastness of the "thin red line" at Balaclava in staying the course was celebrated by poets from Tennyson ("The Charge of the Light Brigade") to Kipling ("Tommy") and over time became a metaphor for steely resolve and a firm stance.

In a lighthearted vein the metaphor shows up in Carry On … Up the Khyber (1968), a British comedy set in the days of the British Raj, when Private Jimmy Widdle, fearing an attack, paints a red line on the ground and declares, "They'll never get past this."

Current Usage

In the modern-day political arena, Yagoda has found uses dating back to 1987, with references to "red lines" in conflicts between Chad and Libya, and in a 1999 article in the New York Times that reported that Muslim clerics in Iran had set out a "red line for the revolution" that no one should cross.

Related: Word in the News: Jihad



Published September 4, 2013

3 comments
Russ Nash
Russ Nash like.author.displayName 1 Like

We used to talk about 'red lining' motorcycles - i.e. revving it right up into the red part of the tachometer before changing gear and all the way through to top.

Andrew Wright
Andrew Wright

I have always thought that a "line in the sand" was essentially useless. It will always be washed away by rain or sea. A line drawn in rock would be more permanent & mean a great deal more!

Andrew Wright
Andrew Wright

I would have thought that a line drawn in the sand is, essentially useless since it will quickly be washed away by the sea or rain. A line drawn in rock would be sturdier & more permanent!

How to Feed Our Growing Planet

  • Feed the World

    Feed the World

    National Geographic explores how we can feed the growing population without overwhelming the planet in our food series.

See blogs, stories, photos, and news »

The Innovators Project

  • Teen Wonder: Taylor Wilson

    Teen Wonder: Taylor Wilson

    After achieving nuclear fusion at age 14, Taylor, now 19, is working with subatomic particles for solutions to nuclear terrorism and cancer.

See more innovators »

Phenomena

See more posts »

Latest News Video

  • How a T. Rex Packs for a Road Trip

    How a T. Rex Packs for a Road Trip

    The nation's most complete Tyrannosaurus rex specimen is taking a 2,000-mile road trip from Montana to its new home in Washington, D.C.

See more videos »

See Us on Google Glass

Shop Our Space Collection

  • Be the First to Own <i>Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey</i>

    Be the First to Own Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

    The updated companion book to Carl Sagan's Cosmos, featuring a new forward by Neil deGrasse Tyson is now available. Proceeds support our mission programs, which protect species, habitats, and cultures.

Shop Now »