National Geographic News

Word in the News

red line

By Roff Smith · National Geographic News · Published May 7, 2013

Obama said it last August: Any use of chemical weapons by Syrian authorities in their ongoing civil war would be to cross a "red line"—and (presumably) invite American action.

Reports that Syria has indeed used such weapons has brought Obama's remark back into the news—and prompted Senator John McCain to say that the lack of U.S. response indicates that the "red line ... was apparently written in disappearing ink." McCain also applied the term to the alleged Israeli missile strikes into Syria: "Apparently the Syrians and Iranians have crossed a red line with the Israelis."

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 May 7, 2013

0 comments

Share

Featured Article

  • Children of Civil War Veterans

    Children of Civil War Veterans

    To their living sons and daughters, the soldiers in blue and gray are flesh and blood, not distant figures in history books.

Latest From Nat Geo

  • Photos: Relics of the Cold War

    Photos: Relics of the Cold War

    A photographer explores the traces of a standoff that divided Europe for four decades.

     

     

  • Hero War Dog Sky Dives With Soldier

    Hero War Dog Sky Dives With Soldier

    Combat dog Layka took part in testing a parachute harness that could make it easier and safer for dogs to help soldiers reach remote locations.

  • Delicate but Deadly Jellyfish

    Delicate but Deadly Jellyfish

    Some jellyfish are known to migrate hundreds of feet in pursuit of prey. See some of our favorite jellyfish pictures in honor of Jellyfish Day.

See more photo galleries »

The Future of Food Series

  • Download: Free iPad App

    Download: Free iPad App

    We've made our magazine's best stories about the future of food available in a free iPad app.

  • Why Food Matters

    Why Food Matters

    How do we feed nine billion people by 2050, and how do we do so sustainably?

See more food news, photos, and videos »