Toeing and hoeing along life's way

Robert Houk • Aug 4, 2019 at 12:02 AM

I admit it. I’m one of the many Americans who have a problem with “toeing the line.” That is to say, I bristle at conforming to certain conventions.

The idiom comes from the early 18th century, and is likely from a British Royal Navy practice of barefoot sailors lining up for inspection on a ship’s deck. It is a phrase that is often confused for “tow the line,” which sounds sort of nautical.

“Tow the line” is not the same thing. There is no rope involved.

Many of us have had “long rows to hoe” in life. I shudder to think of what it must be like for those who say they have “tough roads to hoe.”

I’ve personally never used a hoe on a road, but I can remember hoeing what seemed to be an endless row of green beans under a harsh sun. 

We all wish we had it “made in the shade,” particularly after a long day of hoeing. Again, this is a saying dating back to late 19th century that is fairly obvious in its meaning.

It’s certainly more enjoyable to be sitting under a tree sipping lemonade than hoeing in a field on a summer’s day.

In life, we all must consider what is best in “the long haul.” Hoeing to rid a garden of weeds is indeed a difficult task, but it can help plants thrive and produce more vegetables.

Being someone who doesn’t always toe the line, I’ve had people tell me they didn’t like the “cut of my jib.” Since I don’t wear a jib, and wouldn’t know where to buy one if I did, this comment puzzled me until I looked it up. This is certainly a phrase where Google has proven helpful.

In my online research, I learned the cut of one’s jib is a 17th century nautical term referring to a ship’s forward sail. It was said that much could be learned about the ship by how it flew its jib, including its nationality and the competence of its commander.

I guess first impressions can be revealing.

Another phrase that I have pondered over the years is any variation of: “I’ll be there if the creek(s) don’t rise.” I had many conversations with my late mother-in-law on this one.

Emily was a local historian and had conducted her own research into the origin of this idiom. She claimed the phrase goes back to frontier days, and it referenced an actual American Indian insurgence by the Creek tribe.

I have found other scholars also believe this to be case, with some referencing a letter from Benjamin Hawkins in the 18th century written to the president of the United States stating: “God willing and the Creek don’t rise.” Because he capitalized “Creek,” they believe he was referring to the people and not a body of water.

My own upbringing in the Piedmont of North Carolina has me thinking that the Germans who settled that area were talking about actual creeks and streams. I recall hearing historians remark as to why there were so many small churches and cemeteries scattered throughout that area.

They said this was because congregates were limited to where they could worship as a result of heavy rains washing away wagon trails and making many creeks and streams uncrossable.

Those were the days when farmers wanted to “make hay while the sun was shining.”

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