Line in the sand (phrase)
A line in the sand is a metaphor
A metaphor is a literary figure of speech that uses an image, story or tangible thing to represent a less tangible thing or some intangible quality or idea; e.g., "Her eyes were glistening jewels." Metaphor may also be used for any rhetorical figures of speech that achieve their effects via...

 with two similar meanings:
  • The first meaning is of a point (physical, decisional, etc.) beyond which one will proceed no further. An example would be a person who might agree to visit a bar with his friends, but will go no further (i.e., not partake in drinking alcohol).
  • The second meaning is that of a point beyond which, once the decision to go beyond it is made, the decision and its resulting consequences are permanently decided and irreversible. An example would be to commit funds to completing a project (as opposed to deferral or cancellation); once committed, the funds cannot be spent on another activity, and the project will either succeed or fail.

The exact origin of the phrase is unknown, but several events (though perhaps in legend only) have a reference to an actual line being drawn:
  • In the United States, the phrase is most commonly associated with Texas history
    History of Texas
    European conquistadors first arrived in the region now known as Texas in 1519, finding the region populated by various Native American tribes...

     surrounding the Battle of the Alamo
    Battle of the Alamo
    The Battle of the Alamo was a pivotal event in the Texas Revolution. Following a 13-day siege, Mexican troops under President General Antonio López de Santa Anna launched an assault on the Alamo Mission near San Antonio de Béxar . All but two of the Texian defenders were killed...

    , as it is attributed to Colonel William Travis, commander of the Alamo defense forces. In the waning days of the Battle (somewhere between March 3–5, 1836), with Mexican General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna
    Antonio López de Santa Anna
    Antonio de Padua María Severino López de Santa Anna y Pérez de Lebrón , often known as Santa Anna or López de Santa Anna, known as "the Napoleon of the West," was a Mexican political leader, general, and president who greatly influenced early Mexican and Spanish politics and government...

     having the Alamo completely surrounded, Santa Anna sent a messenger to Travis demanding surrender, or else everyone in the compound would be killed. According to the legend, Travis called the Alamo defenders together, explained that defeat was almost certain, and read the letter of surrender; Travis then (having chosen to die instead of surrender) reportedly pulled his battle sword, drew a line in the sand of the Alamo, and asked for volunteers to cross over the line and join him, understanding their decision would be irreversible. The legend states that all but one of the defenders (including Jim Bowie
    Jim Bowie
    James "Jim" Bowie , a 19th-century American pioneer, slave trader, land speculator, and soldier, played a prominent role in the Texas Revolution, culminating in his death at the Battle of the Alamo...

     and Davy Crockett
    Davy Crockett
    David "Davy" Crockett was a celebrated 19th century American folk hero, frontiersman, soldier and politician. He is commonly referred to in popular culture by the epithet "King of the Wild Frontier". He represented Tennessee in the U.S...

    ) joined Travis on his side of the line; Moses Rose
    Moses Rose
    Louis "Moses" Rose , also seen as Lewis Rose), known as the Coward of the Alamo, was according to Texas legend, the only man who chose to leave the besieged Alamo in 1836, rather than fight and die there. Some regard him as a coward for having left the Alamo prior to the final battle...

     being the only holdout. Travis then responded to Santa Anna's letter with cannon fire, whereupon Santa Anna replied by playing El Degüello
    El Degüello
    El Degüello is a bugle call, notable in the US for its use as a march by Mexican Army buglers during the 1836 Siege and Battle of the Alamo. "Toque a Degüello" was introduced to the Americas by the Spanish armies and was later adopted by the patriot armies fighting against them during the Spanish...

  • In 168 BC
    168 BC
    Year 168 BC was a year of the pre-Julian Roman calendar. At the time it was known as the Year of the Consulship of Macedonicus and Crassus...

    , a Roman Consul named Gaius Popillius Laenas
    Gaius Popillius Laenas
    Gaius Popillius Laenas twice served as one of the two consuls of the Roman Republic, in 172 and 158 BC. His name indicates he was of the gens of the Popilii, a name of Etruscan origin...

     drew a circular line in the sand around King Antiochus IV of the Seleucid Empire
    Seleucid Empire
    The Seleucid Empire was a Greek-Macedonian state that was created out of the eastern conquests of Alexander the Great. At the height of its power, it included central Anatolia, the Levant, Mesopotamia, Persia, today's Turkmenistan, Pamir and parts of Pakistan.The Seleucid Empire was a major centre...

    , then said, "Before you cross this circle I want you to give me a reply for the Roman Senate" – implying that Rome would declare war if the King stepped out of the circle without committing to leave Egypt immediately. Weighing his options, Antiochus wisely decided to withdraw. Only then did Popillius agree to shake hands with him.
  • Ancient Spartan
    Spartan Army
    The Spartan army was the military force of Sparta, one of the leading city-states of ancient Greece. The army stood at the centre of the Spartan state, whose citizens' primary obligation was to be good soldiers. Subject to military drill from infancy, the Spartans were one of the most feared...

     soldiers were said to have drawn a 'line in the sand' during their defence of Greece in the Battle of Thermopylae
    Battle of Thermopylae
    The Battle of Thermopylae was fought between an alliance of Greek city-states, led by King Leonidas of Sparta, and the Persian Empire of Xerxes I over the course of three days, during the second Persian invasion of Greece. It took place simultaneously with the naval battle at Artemisium, in August...

  • Ngāti Whātua
    Ngati Whatua
    Ngāti Whātua is a Māori iwi of New Zealand. It consists of four hapu : Te Uri-o-Hau, Te Roroa, Te Taoū, and Ngāti Whātua-o-Ōrākei....

     war leader Taoho drew a line in the sand, beyond which his tribe's Ngapuhi
    Ngāpuhi is a Māori iwi located in the Northland region of New Zealand, and centred in the Hokianga, the Bay of Islands and Whāngārei.Ngāpuhi has the largest affiliation of any New Zealand iwi, with 122,214 people registered , and formed from 150 hapu, with 55 marae.-Foundations:The founding...

     enemies were not to be pursued, during the battle of Moremonui
    Moremonui or Moremunui is a location in the Northland Region of New Zealand, 12 miles south of Maunganui Bluff. It is known principally as the site of a Māori battle fought in either 1807 or 1808 between the Kaipara branches of the Ngāti Whātua, Te-Uri-o-Hau and Te Roroa iwi on one side and the...

    , or the Seagulls' Feast, at the start of the New Zealand
    New Zealand
    New Zealand is an island country in the south-western Pacific Ocean comprising two main landmasses and numerous smaller islands. The country is situated some east of Australia across the Tasman Sea, and roughly south of the Pacific island nations of New Caledonia, Fiji, and Tonga...

     Māori Musket Wars
    Musket Wars
    The Musket Wars were a series of five hundred or more battles mainly fought between various hapū , sometimes alliances of pan-hapū groups and less often larger iwi of Māori between 1807 and 1842, in New Zealand.Northern tribes such as the rivals Ngāpuhi and Ngāti Whātua were the first to obtain...

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