Mind your language

What, exactly, is a 'red line'?

8 June 2013

Last August President Barack Obama said that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would cross a red line. He repeated the phrase in December: red line.

Why should the line be red and what happens if it is crossed? A simple, unhelpful answer is that the metaphor is taken from a safety gauge indicating a maximum speed, for an aeroplane perhaps, or for an engine’s revolutions. The big fat Oxford Dictionary in 20 volumes traces that figurative use back to the 1970s. But it seems at odds with a warning against chemical weapons. If Assad loosed off clouds of deadly gas, Mr Obama wouldn’t shout ‘Hey, slow down!’

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Nor is the Obama red line related to the thin red line presented by the British Army to the Russians. George Orwell, in A Clergyman’s Daughter, invented a Hundred Page History of Britain, a ‘nasty little duodecimo book’ of 1888, which declared anachronistically that Napoleon ‘soon found that in the “thin red line” he had more than met his match’. But the Crimea was undoubtedly the cradle of the phrase. In 1854, at Balaclava, William Russell, the Times correspondent, wrote of the ‘thin red streak tipped with a line of steel’, soon apocopated into thin red line. Robert Gibb (not, for a change, Lady Butler) had a great success with ‘The Thin Red Line’ at the Royal Scottish Academy in 1881.

There is also a red line in ice hockey, but I don’t think we need go into that, for we should rather attend to the line in the sand. No one knows why it should be in the sand: sand is not always available. But it is the line beyond which your opponent must not go. The metaphor seems only about half a century old. Earlier, when people spoke of drawing the line they meant ‘making a distinction’. That phrase developed the meaning of ‘setting a limit’, and this sense merged into the idea of sand-line drawing. ‘Whenever John Major draws a line in the sand,’ wrote a wit in the Scotsman in 1996, ‘you can be sure some Eurosceptic bully will come along and kick it in his face.’ Ignoring lines, sandy or red, is a favourite pastime of Middle Eastern tyrants.

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Show comments
  • Newcombe

    But on this occassion, he should have gone that “extra mile”.


    • chui1996

      Perhaps he needed a “road map”

      • darwins beard

        and a clear “end game” scenario

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Spectator, how long are you going to sit on your hands whistling Dixie while the story of the year goes floating by?
    “The lies being told by US government agencies and the mainstream media over in Syria continue to unravel as a Free Syrian Army Rebel has come out and admitted to the Associated Press that the rebels were responsible for the chemical attack in Syria blamed upon Syrian government forces. The rebels also admit that the weapons were supplied to them by US ally Saudi Arabia.”

    Let`s see how long before this is taken down.

    • Augustus

      Old news! (Aug.29th)

      The accusation by the rebels and local residents in Ghouta was that Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan provided chemical weapons to an al-Qaida linked rebel group (Jabhat al-Nusra militants) who do not share information with other rebels or cooperate with them. They say some of the fighters handled the weapons improperly and set off the explosions. But John Kerry says government forces did it. His intelligence is probably better that an interview with AP.

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        Damage limitation? 9/11 Part II.
        Face it, the US has form.

      • Iain Hill

        His evidence is certainly more recent, and the ink will dry quite soon!

      • lessthantolerant

        Want to bet? John Kerry knew of atrocities committed by American soldiers in Viet Nam when he had no facts.
        Lurch needs his American citizenship revoked and sent to Syria,

        • stainpouch

          When you win the Bronze and Silver Stars, you can talk. Until then that’s all you are.

  • Iain Hill

    Why did Obama daw a red line?

    Hubris?. Loghorrea?

  • allymax bruce

    Dot, why in-deed!
    President Barack Obama is a brilliant politician. He is in a very very powerful position going into his last 3 years in office
    President Obama, is a clever clever man.

    • lessthantolerant

      Obama sucks, quite simply.

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      Experimenting with irony, bruce?

      • allymax bruce

        Jack…, my dear fellow, what add-ons do you think will be on the draft bill?
        Moreover, the Republican Parry now have a demanding dilemma; Party ‘interests’, or ‘financier’ interests !
        President Obama is in a very very powerful position; he’s a clever clever man.

  • lessthantolerant

    The boy king has proven how stupid he is and now wants us to believe this wasn’t his idea.
    Listening to Kerry say the line was drawn nearly 100 years ago is amusing when you listen to these clowns.
    let make sure our politicians vote this strike down and teach the boy a lesson!

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Sometime when you post a contribution that is not removed you realise that you are acting as a cat`s paw for the MSM.

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