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What is the origin of the phrase "do a line with someone", meaning "have a regular romantic or sexual romantic relationship with someone"?

I learnt this phrase from an Irish colleague of mine the other day, but she did not know how the phrase originated.

Oxford dictionaries online say:

Definition of do a line with in English

(Irish and NZ, informal) have a regular romantic or sexual romantic relationship with (someone): "I knew if I went home for Christmas, I'd have to pretend I was doing a line with some man."

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    Usage alert! This means only to literally use cocaine (or other insufflatable drug) with someone in American English. – Tatpurusha May 26 '14 at 3:22
  • On the line is a gambling expression. Sports betting will typically have a "line" or handicap. If you make such a bet your money is "on the line," i.e., you are taking a risk. – JString Jun 21 '17 at 16:59
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The other answers here refer to the drug taking aspect of it, but I've often heard my Irish father say "doing a line" in reference to dating. It's no longer commonly used in Ireland any more, but most Irish people would know exactly what you meant if you said you were "doing a line" with someone.

This site has a section on Irish Sayings for St Patrick's Day which attempts to explain the etymology of the expression:

I would just like to firstly clarify that ‘Doing a line,’ has nothing at all to do with the use of any illegal substances whatsoever. Instead it was a perfectly innocent activity that young Irish couples partook of as part of a rite of passage to becoming a respectable married couple.

‘Doing a line,’ refers to a couple who are going out together i.e. my reckoning of it is that back in the day it was considered proper procedure for the matchmaker to always supervise a couple who had just met and the first stage of their courtship would always involve ‘walking out together.’ This ritual of courting someone would begin after a suitable introduction was performed by the matchmaker.

Once the couple had met under the matchmaker’s watchful eye of course then it was expected that they would then go for a nice stroll together down a green country lane. At this stage they were always closely followed by the matchmaker himself. The matchmaker for those of you not familiar with one was usually a local man living in the area whose job it was to introduce eligible young girls to what he deemed to be suitable men for a fee on their marriage. He did this of course for a fee and a big part of his job was negotiating with the potential bride and groom’s families as to what kind of a fortune the young woman in question would be bringing with her into her marriage. This could and often did include any manner of livestock, money or other possessions.

Excellent use of the expression here under "Dry Shite" in a list of Greatest Irish Insults.

  • For what it's worth, the OED has a plausible etymology: A "line" is "a glib or superficially attractive mode of address or behaviour, plausible talk. So to do a line with (Austral. and N.Z.), to (try to) enter into an amorous relationship with." In other words, if you chat up someone in a bar with your best lines, then you would be "doing a line" with them. – Michael Seifert Jun 21 '17 at 18:31
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do a line means to snort a line of cocaine.

In the context given, I'd say it means more generally to fraternise. Similar to how 'have a drink with' doesn't strictly mean 'having a drink', it could be a euphemism for sleeping with.

Certainly, as a Kiwi myself, it's not a term I've heard outside of it's drug connations.

If I heard someone say 'I'm doing a line with a this cute guy I met out dancing', I wouldn't take it to mean 'I'm having a regular romantic relationship with this guy'. I'd take it to literally mean 'I'm doing drugs with this guy', though I could see how it could mean 'I'm having a casual encounter with this guy'.

edit: I did a bit of a google, and yes, I can see that it is defined as you've described in several online dictionaries. Still, just saying, it's not common parlance, at least in my circles.

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At a guess, I think it is based on comparing the addictive or habitual aspect of sexual activity to snorting a line of cocaine.

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    Comments are an excellent place to guess. – anongoodnurse May 25 '14 at 22:17
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    @medica But Erik is right. To do a line is a snorting cocaine reference. – dwjohnston May 26 '14 at 1:47
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    @dwjohnston - that is irrelevant. This site discourages guessing in answers. Answers should be supported by more than a hunch. The user can edit his answer to add information. – anongoodnurse May 26 '14 at 4:15
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" Doing a line" was a figure of speech used commonly in Ireland in more innocent times 40 and more years ago to describe a couple who were regularly dating and going out together. If a couple were "doing a strong line" it meant that the relationship was very serious and was likely to end up in marriage. The term apparently has fallen out of use with the advent of a drugs culture in Ireland. The origin of it, insofar as I know, is as described earlier -- when a young couple started to become romantically interested in each other they went for regular walks together under the supervision of a matchmaker or other adult. Innocent times in Ireland indeed which are now long gone and have rendered this romantic meaning of the word obsolete among the younger generation of Irish people.

  • Hi Peter, this is a very interesting answer. I would encourage you to reference something so any "Doubting Thomas" couldn't challenge your answer. – Karlomanio Jan 29 at 23:03

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