THIN RED LINE.

Yvonne Warburton, Online Publication Manager of the OED, writes about the trouble she had tracking down the first recorded occurrence of the phrase the thin red line: “It was generally believed to be associated with the Battle of Balaclava, which took place in 1854. It therefore seemed reasonable to assume that I would be able to find an 1854 first quotation, especially as the phrase was attributed in many later sources to Sir William Howard Russell, who was war correspondent for the Times during the Crimean War.” But it wasn’t nearly that simple, and the earliest citation they’ve found so far is from “a book by Russell called The British Expedition to the Crimea, published in 1887.” Well worth reading if you’re interested in the nitty-gritty of finding cites, and my thanks to aldiboronti at Wordorigins for bringing it to my attention!

Update (2019). Owlmirror has found an update that provides an 1855 citation:

And finally (for now) the expression has been uncovered in The Times of 24 January 1855, citing a debate about the distribution of ‘Crimean medals’ in the House of Lords the previous evening at which the Earl of Ellenborough had said:

“Nor were the services performed by the gallant 93d Regiment..to be forgotten – the services of that ‘thin red line’ which had met and routed the Russian cavalry.”

Comments

  1. Mmmmmm….. baklava. It was worth the battle. The immortal words: “Baklava is now ours!”

  2. Russell is also famed for the exchange of telegrams with his editor, during the war —
    Ed: ARE THERE ANY NEWS?
    Russell: NOT A DAMNED NEW.
    The last recorded instance of ‘news’ as a plural?

  3. Terry Collmann says:

    Fascinating that Russell shouild change his original 1857
    “thin red streak topped with a line of steel”
    to
    “thin red line tipped with steel”
    20 years later and at his fourth attempt at writing a description of the battle. No doubt which version of the phrase quote rolls around the mouth more satisfactorially. Popular misquotation often errs towards a happier-sounding version. Did Russell hear (or see) “thin red streak topped with a line of steel” misquoted as “thin red line” and decide to amend his own original to the better-sounding alternative?
    The battle of Balaclava, of course, also gave us the balaclava helmet, a knitted head covering enveloping everything except the face, like those chain mail helmets Norman knights sported, except in wool, which the British soldiers used to keep warm during the cold Crimean winter. British schoolboys still wore balaclavas (along with fingerless gloves, shorts and knee socks) in winter until at least the early 1960s. Haven’t seen a balaclava for decades, though – killed off, probably, by public ridicule, since while wearing one you looked like a total tosser …

  4. Aha, so that is what elderly ladies are always knitting in genteel 1930 mystery novels. I vaguely imagined a kind of net, something to throw over those colonial helmets , to keep off the flies perhaps. In the Netherlands they still inflicted balaclava helmets on small children in the seventies & eighties, preferably in lurid red or green. (Not that they’re not nice & warm in principle but in my memory they are always synthetical, stinking, and snot-covered).
    In Dutch the thing is called a bivak muts if it also has a piece between the mouth and nose.

  5. Richard Hershberger says:

    I (an American) have a balaclava. In years past I engaged in winter backpacking, which is its own form of insanity. Winter backpackers wear balaclavas around camp, and especially while sleeping. Not so much while on the trail, because, well, yes: they look incredibly stupid and someone might see you…

  6. Stupid and yet quite menacing when worn to full advantage. Two great looks in one versatile garment.

  7. “”thin red streak topped with a line of steel” to “thin red line tipped with steel””
    The first phrase has a better cadence, though. Personally I’d go for “thin red line tipped with a streak of steel”.

  8. “yet quite menacing”
    Balaclavas are associated in my mind (and I suspect in many others of my generation) with IRA terrorists, who frequently wore them.

  9. The headpiece worn by some Muslim women arouses similar feelings; it is quite unnerving to see the driver of an oncoming vehicle done up in such a way.

  10. I wear my balaclava when cycling in cold weather.
    I wear my knee-socks in Australia. Or with my kilt.

  11. Well, hell, the OED page linked to in the post is not only gone but appears to be unrecoverable: the Wayback Machine finds the relevant Word stories page, with a link to this story (“Following the thin red line“), but if you click on the link you get redirected to the general OED website. Bah.

  12. Owlmirror says:

    FWIW, searching on the article author’s name in quotes and the phrase in quotes brings up this very languagehat page as the first hit — but it also finds this page:

    https://public.oed.com/blog/march-2007-update-revision-notes/

    In 1986 Yvonne Warburton, at the time a researcher on the OED and now managing the online publication of the Dictionary, published an article describing research she had conducted for the OED on the phrase thin red line.
    […]
    Her research back in 1986 had resulted in the expression being dated back to 1877 – although the term was widely associated with the Crimean War (1854-6). She ended with the plea: ‘If you ever see thin red line earlier than 1877, let us know!’
    […]
    Sure enough, users of the OED Online have been busy hunting out earlier examples
    […]
    And finally (for now) the expression has been uncovered in The Times of 24 January 1855, citing a debate about the distribution of ‘Crimean medals’ in the House of Lords the previous evening at which the Earl of Ellenborough had said:

    “Nor were the services performed by the gallant 93d Regiment..to be forgotten – the services of that ‘thin red line’ which had met and routed the Russian cavalry.”

  13. Thanks very much for that!

  14. Owlmirror says:

    Another hit is on the Polish Wikipedia page for the phrase, “Cienka czerwona linia (1854)”. The reference for that page has a link to Yvonne Warburton’s original post that is slightly different from yours, in that it has “www” rather than “dictionary” as the site for the OED page — and that has a working web archive link.

    Following the thin red line

    Nie ma za co!

  15. Excellent, I’ll substitute that for the nonworking link in the post!

  16. ktschwarz says:

    John Simpson has the full story in The Word Detective, much more detailed than the 2007 update note, from Yvonne Warburton’s original research to the antedating achieved via digital searching in 2007. I would guess that they took Warburton’s article off their site because it’s been superseded.

  17. Very likely. And here’s the OED entry (s.v. red line) as it now reads, with the first few citations:

    1. (the) thin red line [in allusion to the red coats formerly worn as part of the soldiers’ uniform (see redcoat n. 1a)] : the British army or a section of this, often with the implication of bravery or sturdy resistance against heavy odds (now chiefly hist.). Frequently in extended use; occasionally without thin.
    The expression arose with reference to British action in the Crimean War (1853–6).

    [1829 Tales Mil. Life II. 175 The long red line of Britons is fully before the sight, like a giant stream of blood on the ripe and mellow bosom of the earth.]
    1855 Times 24 Jan. 6/2 The services of that ‘thin red line’ which had met and routed the Russian cavalry.
    1855 F. Duberly Let. 8 June in E. E. P. Tisdall Mrs. Duberly’s Campaigns (1963) v. 147 They advance, supported by the impenetrable red line, our infantry.
    1877 W. H. Russell Brit. Exped. Crimea iii. ii. 156 The Russians..dashed on towards that thin red line tipped with steel.

  18. Owlmirror says:

    @ktschwarz: Google Books seems to have it in for me. When I use your link, I get the main page for the book, showing the cover thumbnail & summary, but no internal page image. I had the same problem from my own Google hit. Trying to get any view inside any part of an edition with limited preview gets me “image not available”.

    Bah, indeed.

  19. Try googling “she had an armful of documentary” and see if you have any luck.

  20. Up until now, I guess I had always assumed that the red was symbolic of blood, not a literal description of the cochineal-dyed shirts.

  21. John Cowan says:

    The term “the thin blue line”, referring to the police seen as standing between the law-abiding and criminals, dates to about 1950 in the U.S., and is obviously based on the traditional uniform color. It was also applied, probably independently, to the Civil-War era Union Army in 1911; they also wore blue uniforms.

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