Jewish World Review April 1, 2004 / 11 Nissan, 5764
Editors of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate
"Thin red line''; "doak"; "level playing field"
Did the phrase "thin red line'' get its start during World War II?
R. T., Jefferson City, Missouri
Dear R. T.:
"Thin red line,'' which means a small but valiant line of defense, was probably coined by William Howard Russell of the Times of London. One of the first war correspondents, he applied the term to the brave - and successful - stand in 1854 of the 93rd Highlanders (who wore red uniforms) against the Russians at the battle of Balaclava in the Crimean War. (The same battle was also the scene of the disastrous "Charge of the Light Brigade.'')
Russell watched the battle from a distant hill and wrote: "The Russians charged in toward Balaclava. The ground flew beneath the horses' feet; gathering speed at every stride they dashed on towards that thin red streak tipped with steel.'"
(He later changed "streak'' to "line.'') The Highlanders waited until the charging horses were within range and then fired, and the Russians retreated in confusion. After this incident, the regiment was called "the thin red line.''
In recent years, the color of the line has often been changed to blue and applied to police officers as "the thin blue line of men and women who daily risk their lives by walking into the jaws of death,'' in the words of a Dallas prosecuting attorney.
America's West Point has a related phrase, "the long gray line,'' referring to the generations of graduates of the United States Military Academy.
Some time ago, I read a novel that included the word "doak." The story took place in the days of feather beds and the term seems to have something to do with the mattress the principal character slept on. I can't find the word in any dictionary. What does it mean?
C.R., Raleigh, N.C.
The word "doak" is an obsolete variant spelling of "doke," which is defined in Webster's Third New International Dictionary as "a depression or indentation." This is an English dialect word that is rarely used today, except in fanciful descriptions of such mundane things as the indentation made by the body on a bed or by the head on a pillow. A footprint is another example of a doke, as are the dimples in the cheeks or chins of some people.
The term is probably an alteration of the earlier word "dalk," which comes from Middle English and may be a diminutive form of the Middle English term "dale."
The earliest known use of "doke" is in 1615, when a writer described "the doke or dimple in the middest of the chin." Since the mid-1800s, the term has been used less and less frequently and may eventually become entirely obsolete, a fact that explains why you have been unable to find "doak" in standard English dictionaries. Since your novel was set in an older time, "doak" was probably quite appropriate there.
My co-worker claims that the expression "level playing field" must come from football, but I wonder about that. Can you resolve this by giving us the origin of the saying?
W.H., Milton, Mass.
The field in the expression "level playing field" doesn't appear to be connected with any particular sport. In the literal sense, playing fields are simply open fields upon which games are played, and all such fields, whether used for baseball, soccer, football, lacrosse or any other sport, are of course, ideally, level.
The first known use of the term "playing field" in its literal sense is in a 16th-century British reference to the sports grounds at Eton. It was probably in the 1950s in the United States that "playing field" was first used figuratively, as in "the playing fields of international democracy" - apparently without intended reference to any particular sport.
"Level playing field" seems to have originated within the banking industry in the late 1970s as a metaphor for "competitive equality" - again, without any clear reference to a particular sport. (Never mind the fact that a few years ago, the U.S. League of Savings Institutions considered "The Level Playing Field" along with "The Automated Hitting Machine" as possible names for its baseball team.)
Interestingly, it took more than a decade before the metaphor was picked up by the world of sports, to be employed in statements like "for the first time our country will be able to play (basketball) on a level field" - a reference to the admission of professional athletes to Olympic competitions.
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