I’m interested in the line, “Raising tax rates on the wealthy is Obama’s line in the sand” in the following lead-copy of Washington Post’s (December 4) article titled “President Obama’s tough time taking a hard line on the fiscal cliff.”

“The president has done something that could make negotiations far more difficult. He has made it clear that raising tax rates on the wealthy is his line in the sand.”

I see the idiom, “Bury your head in the sand” in Cambridge online dictionary, and “Head in the sand” in Merriam-Webster online dictionary, but I cannot find “in the sand” as an idiom in both dictionaries. Oxford online dictionary registers only “the sands (of time) are running out” as a sand-related phrase.

On the other hand, Google Ngram shows consistent incidences of “in the sand” since cir 1840. I guess “his line in the sand” means “his statement (promise) unachievable like “a castle in the air.” Is “something (letter, record, plan, promise, structure) in the sand” a popular expression? If so, why isn’t it registered in major dictionaries as a simile of fragility, ephemerality, or easy-erasable like the title of Japanese popular song, "A love-letter writen on the sand"?

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    Head in the sand comes from the behavior of ostriches, although I don't believe ostriches really do that when frightened. Roaring Fish has done a nice job explaining line in the sand below. I can't think of any other X in the sand idioms off the top of my head. (OneLook lists a few, like circle, roots, footprints, and toes, but these are references to proper titles of poems, films or songs, not idioms). As Barrie said, its usage in the Post's article means that Obama is not willing to budge on that one issue.
    – J.R.
    Dec 5 '12 at 10:13
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    @J.R.: I concur that line in the sand and head in the sand are idioms but there is no general case. And I understand that what ostriches do when sitting on the nest and a predator approaches is lower their head to the ground, thus reducing their height (and so visibility) by 90%. Early observers thought the ostrich buried its head, believing that if it couldn't see it couldn't be seen (a much better story). Dec 5 '12 at 12:50
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    @YoichiOishi: I wouldn't call it a stupid association at all; it does seem rather odd to associate such immutable resolve with something so temporary.
    – J.R.
    Dec 6 '12 at 9:17

"X in the sand" doesn't really exist as a stand-alone.

A "line in the sand" sets a limit. Crossing that line will have consequences of some sort.

It is a very old idea. The Ramayana includes a line in the sand, drawn around a house to protect it. The Roman Laenas drew a line in the sand around King Antiochus, saying that Rome would declare war if he crossed the line without agreeing to leave Egypt. At the Alamo, Travis drew a line in the sand and invited those who wanted to refuse to surrender to cross it and join him.

According to Ngram, the phrase entered popular use in the closing years of the 18th Century.

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    But the earliest mentions in the Ngram seem actually to be quite recent. I have no idea how they appear to have identified a 1947 edition of The Spectator as having been published in 1726!
    – Andrew Leach
    Dec 5 '12 at 10:30

To draw a line in the sand is, in the OED’s definition, ‘to establish a limit or boundary; to specify a level of tolerance or a point beyond which one will not go.’

The earliest citation is mid-twentieth century, and it is found quite frequently, at least in the UK, in political commentary.


"Line in the sand" seems to be well covered in the other answers. Head in the sand refers to Ostriches supposedly burying their head in the sand to avoid danger. Not true but it has become an idiom for not admitting there is a problem.


English also uses "in the sand" or "on the sand" to imply transience or fragility.

Yoichi must be referring to a Japanese cover of the old (1930s?) song, "Love Letters in the Sand". In 1957, the American singer Pat Boone made an international hit record of the song. In those years, Boone was very popular among Japanese teenage girls.

There is also an old Christian hymn for children, "The Wise Man Built His House Upon the Rock", based upon the Bible Parable of the Wise and Foolish Builders:

Matthew 7:24-27 KJV (Public Domain)

24 Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him >unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: 25 And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that >house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock. 26 And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be >likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand: 27 And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that >house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it.

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