Whence 'draw a line in the sand'?

This is a discussion thread · 31 replies
1 2 3 4
There are two explanations of this phrase on Word Detective:


(You have to page down to the index & look for 'line in the sand'.)

Neither seems applicable to its current usage, which is roughly equivalent to 'draw a line under' (itself presumably an accounting reference).

Ancient mathematicians (Euclid for instance) drew lines in sand when studying geometry, but this doesn't seem relevant.

Does anyone know the origins of this common phrase?
Junior Member66
This is a curious one. At first I thought it could be to do with the Biblical tale of the adulterous woman and Jesus (Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.) etc...

In this passage it says when the pharisees ask Jesus what should be done with the woman he is

'This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not.' (King James Bible)

Then he says the famous line, and again writes in the ground.

Now possibly it could mean that the matter is settled absolutely - i.e. by God (Jesus).

Just an idea.
New Member08
Here's what the Word-detective website has to say:

In his book "In Love With Norma Loquendi" (a collection of his Sunday New York Times Magazine columns, published by Random House in 1994), Mr. (William) Safire provides two possible origins for "drawing a line in the sand."

The more recent possible origin for the phrase is an incident said to have taken place during the siege of the Alamo in 1836, when William Barret Travis drew a line in the sand with his sword and urged those willing to stay and defend the fort to step across it. Unfortunately, this heroic story seems to have been invented by a 19th century promoter long after the fall of the Alamo. But the myth itself probably greatly popularized the phrase, so it does count as an origin of sorts even if the incident itself was apocryphal.

Another possible origin dates back to the time of the Roman Empire. It seems that one of the Macedonian kings, a bit short of cash, decided to invade Egypt, then a Roman protectorate. His army was met at the border by a lone Roman senator named Popillius Laenas, who ordered the king to withdraw. The king began to stall for time, so Popillius Laenas drew a circle in the sand around the king and demanded that the king agree to withdraw his army before he stepped out of the circle. The king, apparently impressed by the senator's nerve (or, more likely, by the Roman Empire in general), withdrew. Incidentally, not only is this account verified by contemporary historians, but it also may be the only known instance of a line drawn in the sand actually stopping someone.
Junior Member66
'To draw a line in the sand' in its current usage means 'to conclude
the matter'.

For the Alamo story to explain the phrase, all the Mexicans would
have had to have said 'well, that's that, then', and gone home as
soon as Travis drew his line.

Similarly, in the Macedonian story, the drawing of the line doesn't
itself conclude the affair, as it precedes the agreement to withdraw,
which is the real conclusion. When the senator draws his circle,
there's still a commercial break and a full half-hour of tense,
perspiring close-ups in full body armour to go.

In the Biblical story, the writing in the sand seems to bear no
relation to the fact that everyone suddenly remembers a
previous engagement and decides to skip the stoning. That
seems to have more to do with the 'famous sentence'.

It is an inadvertently appropriate phrase, though, as no one
takes the slightest notice of all these lines in the sand
public figures are forever drawing.


Veteran Member12,806
Proficient Speaker: Users in this role are known to maintain an excellent grasp of the English language. You can only be promoted to this role by the Englishforums team.Retired Moderator: A moderator who has retired.
"To draw a line in the sand" is a "tongue-in-cheek" expression not meaning to conclude an affair. It refers to a conclusion which can be washed away as quickly as a wave can literally obliterate a line drawn in the sand of a beach.
Hi guys,

I don't see this expression as meaning 'to conclude the matter'. I see it as meaning 'to state a non-negotiable position'. This merely sets limits, although in turn this may or may not lead to a conclusion.

eg The Canadian Centre For Policy Alternatives wrote this of trade discussions wuth the USA: If we continue to cave in, the Americans will trample over us when they have an important interest to protect. Canada must draw a line in the sand.

I think sand is an odd medium in whch to draw a line such as this, because sand represents something that can be easily changed. 'Draw a line in wet concrete' seems to make more sense. Of course, there is the expression 'To carve something in stone'.

Best wishes, Clive
Veteran Member67,736
Moderator: A super-user who takes care of the forums. You have the ability to message a moderator privately should you wish. These users have a range of elevated privileges including the deletion, editing and movement of posts when needed.Teachers: Users in this role are certified teachers. This may include DELTA, CELTA, TESOL, TEFL qualified professionals. Email a scan of your qualification to an admin, if you wish to be considered.
I have no idea whether this has any connection whatever, but when Francisco Pizarro's underfed and sickly fellows wanted to get back to Panama rather than keep trying to find a new empire to conquer, he actually drew a line in the sand (in the beach of Isla del Gallo) an said more or less, 'on this side (south = on to Peru) you'll find toil, hunger, nakedness, and storms, and death; on the other (north = back to Panama) ease and pleasure (...) por aquí se ba à Panamá à ser pobres, por alla al Perú à ser ricos. Now choose as a brave Castilian should. For me, I'll go southward'. (Montesinos, Annales, MS. year 1527)

As to the meaning, according to the current Webster,

draw the line or draw a line 1 : to fix an arbitrary boundary between things that tend to intermingle 2 : to fix a boundary excluding what one will not tolerate or engage in

in other several other languages there are similar expressions, usually restricted to "cross this line (that is, ignore what I'm telling you) and you'll have to pay for it"

The battle at the Alamo is famous in the U.S. and in Texas in particular. You can Google it.

Didn't this expression get popular during the first Gulf war?
Veteran Member27,441
Proficient Speaker: Users in this role are known to maintain an excellent grasp of the English language. You can only be promoted to this role by the Englishforums team.Retired Moderator: A moderator who has retired.Trusted Users: Trusted users are allowed to use additional capabilities of the site such as private messaging to all users and various other advanced features. You cannot join this role unless you are promoted by an administrator.
Show more
Live chat
Registered users can join here