Where does the phrase along the lines of come from, and what are you really saying?

For instance, if you were commissioning a sculpture you might sit down with the artist and a pen and paper and say

I want something along the lines of this

and then draw a sketch.

Or if you were describing a book you wanted you might say

The plot was something along the lines of a murder and a police man.


The phrase means:

similar in type

  • I can't remember exactly what words he used but it was something along those lines.

  • I was thinking of doing a dinner party along the lines of that meal I cooked for Annie and Dave.

There is some discussion of its origins here, noting:

Probably from the meaning of "line" defined as sense #15b in the Oxford Engl. Dict.:

"fig. Plan of construction, of action, or procedure: now chiefly in phr. 'on (such and such) lines.'"

"In all very uncultivated countries . . . there are but obscure lines of any form of government" .

"He had reorganized the constitution on the most strictly conservative lines".

To say that "The plot was something along the lines of a murder and a police man" means that the plot line of the novel was something similar to a murder with a policeman. Or, if you're designing a sculpture and have an idea in mind, you can sketch it out and say you want something along those lines--that is, you want "something like this".

  • Ah you're right about the phrase. I shall change my question. :) – Thomas Clayson Aug 21 '11 at 12:17
  • Changed. Thanks for your answer. I will stress I understand what it means to say "along the lines of" in context. :) I was more interested as to why we use the phrase itself. The oxford dictionary entry is interesting, but still makes the phrase's use somewhat abstract. For instance, using line as in "plan of construction/action/procedure" is 'correct' when talking about making a sculpture, but less apt in other uses, such as describing the plot of a book, in my opinion (maybe I'm wrong!). Thanks again. – Thomas Clayson Aug 21 '11 at 12:23
  • @Thomas I would argue that a plot is still constructed--it is thought out, has a structure, etc. – simchona Aug 21 '11 at 12:24

I'm a sailor. I believe that this has a nautical origin, like many phrases. Along the lines refers to two things on a boat, and goes back centuries. One common use waas along the lines of the keel, referring to the midline on a boat. Similarly, lines of navigation were and are critical in successfully making passages, so along the lines also referred to the compass direction in which a boat was travelling, and the continuation of travel along those lines...

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    Thank you, Mark. We prefer supported answers on ELU, even if it's just published opinions of possible etymologies. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 31 '15 at 19:41
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    I strongly suspect that this is more likely the origin than the more vague suggestions of the other answer. – Hot Licks Mar 31 '15 at 21:24

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