Despite all of us being able to cite a proverb, like “Where there’s a will, there’s a way" few of us really know what the term. Proverb means. This includes proverb scholars who have problems defining the term proverb and there is no accepted definition. The following is a consensus definition "a proverb is a phrase, saying, sentence, statement, or expression of the folk which contains above all wisdom, truth, morals, experience, lessons, and advice concerning life and which has been handed down from generation to generation" (Wolfgang Mieder.) What is certainly in no doubt is the number of proverbs, which include reference to feet, shoes and the lower leg.
The reference to the lower extremity is not restricted to the English language or European culture. Two old African proverbs warn” No-one tests the depth of a river with both feet,” and “Restless feet may walk into a snake pit,” clearly illustrate the pithy wisdom of life. The origins of foot proverbs are themselves an interesting study.
In the case of 'toeing the line' this comes from one of three sources; the military line-ups when soldiers were expected to line up by putting their toes on a line for inspection; or alternatively sailors, where the space between each pair of deck planks in a wooden ship were filled with a packing material called "oakum" and then sealed with a mixture of pitch and tar. The result, from afar, gave the appearance of a series of parallel lines a half foot or so apart, running the length of the deck. Once a week, as a rule, usually on Sunday, a warship's crew was ordered to fall in at quarters – that is, each group of men into which the crew was divided would line up in formation in a given area of the deck. To insure a neat alignment of each row, the sailors were directed to stand with their toes just touching a particular seam. Another use for these seams was punitive. The youngsters in a ship, be they ship's boys or student officers, might be required to stand with their toes just touching a designated seam for a length of time as punishment for some minor infraction of discipline, such as talking or fidgeting at the wrong time. A tough captain might require the reprobate to stand there, not talking to anyone, in fair weather or foul, for hours at a time. Hopefully, he would learn it was easier and more pleasant to conduct himself in the required manner rather than suffer the punishment. From these two uses of deck seams, comes our cautionary word to obstreperous youngsters to "toe the line."
The proverb “hold your feet to the fire “meaning: to be held accountable for a commitment, make good on a promise may have had its origins to medieval torture used during the Crusade's. As a method for extracting confession for heresy, non-believers were positioned in a manner that allowed the inquisitor to apply flames to the feet of the accused. This was done until the accused confessed or died.
'To break a leg ' well-used saying in theatre, means a wish of good luck. Its origins come from people who believed in Sprites. Sprites were spirits or ghosts that were believed to enjoy wreaking havoc and causing trouble. If the Sprites heard you ask for something, they were reputed to try to make the opposite happen. Telling someone to "break a leg" is an attempt to outsmart the Sprites and in fact make something good happen. Sort of a medieval reverse psychology.
"Mind your ps and qs, " has its origin in dance. In the seventeenth century dancers would wear wigs and buckled shoes. The dance master usually French came quite distraught when people stood on each other's feet or bowed so low as to lose their wig. Hence he would call mind your ps (pieds feet) and qs (queues-wig).