When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu drew a bright red line across a drawing of a bomb representing Iran’s nuclear program at the U.N. General Assembly, he used a phrase that has bled into the vernacular: Red line.
"I believe that faced with a clear red line, Iran will back down and this will give more time for sanctions and diplomacy to convince Iran to dismantle its nuclear weapons program all together,” he told world leaders gathered in New York on Thursday.
He didn’t invent the phrase, which has been related to military conflicts for at least a century, but he has given it a new spin.
Defining the term
The Oxford English Dictionary defines “red line” as the center of an ice hockey rink or a mark on a gauge indicating a safety limit or critical point. It also lists it as a reference to British soldiers' iconic red uniforms.
One of the expression’s earliest appearances came in the 1850s, when the "thin red line" was used to describe the British army at the battle of Balaclava in the Crimean War, according to Ben Zimmer, a language columnist for The Boston Globe newspaper.
"There was a regiment of Scottish soldiers who wore red coats, and they were holding off the Russians in the battle,” he said. “They became known as the ‘thin red line,’ and that became a famous expression to refer to the British army."
Years later in 1962, author James Jones named his novel about World War II "The Thin Red Line," which was adapted into a movie of the same name in 1998.
Lines in the sand
Post World War II, the phrase found a home in the Middle East, according to Ben Yagoda, an English professor at the University of Delaware and author of the upcoming book "How to Not Write Bad.”
He said it was used to describe physical lines drawn in a conflict between Chad and Libya, as reported by the New York Times in 1987. The same newspaper in 1999 quoted an Iranian cleric who asked his country’s top leaders to define a "red line" for the revolution that no one would be allowed to cross.
"Kav adom,” the Hebrew equivalent of “red line,” might have been the first appearance of the phrase in the region, said Zimmer.
"The earliest example that I’ve seen is from 1975, and a quote from the Israeli foreign minister, Yigal Allon, who said at the time, 'Washington has managed to draw a red line, which all the Arab countries know they must not cross, then America is not going to sacrifice Israel for Arab support,'" Zimmer said, adding that Netanyahu may be using “red line” because of its historical resonance.
The power of language
The Israeli leader’s frequent calls for the United States to establish a “red line” with Iran have headlined newspapers around the world and influenced a key foreign policy debate in the U.S. presidential race.
Jonathan Schell, a lecturer on nuclear issues at Yale University in Connecticut, said Netanyahu is using a bold but vague phrase to apply pressure on the United States.
“It’s very good for creating an impression of almost an ultimatum, and in this case to the United States, not to Iran," he said, noting that Netanyahu has suggested if Tehran passes the "red line," the U.S. should attack.
Both U.S. President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, his Republican rival in the presidential race, have used the phrase “red line” and said a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable. But they have not defined what action they would take, or when, to prevent that.
Until the U.S. presidential election is decided in November, both Romney and Obama will be speaking with the Israeli leader about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, at least in shades of gray - if not in black and white.
Additional reporting by Avi Arditti.