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shameless pleading






And why is gas so cheap now that all the stores have closed?

Dear Word Detective: What is the true origin of the word “towrag” or “toerag,” meaning a rascally type of person? Has it any connection to the nomadic Berber Touareg tribe? Could there be a connection to the towing rag, suspended from a long load in a car or truck? I have even heard it might be related to a strip of cloth used for wrapping around the feet, in place of socks. I would appreciate a definitive explanation. — Irene Brackenridge.

Ah yes, wouldn’t we all? So many questions in life, so few answers. Why do cats invariably climb to the highest point in the room when they feel nauseated? Why does the bank charge so much for bounced checks when, by definition, you have no money? Why does the TiVo always decide not to record the season finale of your favorite show? And if life is such an awesome mystery, how come I’ve never been in a car chase?

You seem to have come up with a variety of interesting possibilities for the source of “toerag” (as it’s usually spelled), but the one tying the word to the Touareg (or Tuareg) people of North Africa has, perhaps surprisingly, more than a glimmer of plausibility. The Touareg, an ancient Saharan tribe, operated the great trade routes across the Sahara desert for more than two millennia until the French colonized the area in the 19th century (an incursion the Touareg fiercely resisted). The European colonization of the region had already given us the British slang term “street Arab” for a homeless, wandering child (“The hero and heroine began life as street Arabs of Glasgow,” 1883), so it wouldn’t be too surprising if colonial encounters with the Touareg had spawned another derogatory term in the streets of London.

Unfortunately, the actual origin of “toerag,” which dates back to the 19th century, is considerably less interesting and more depressing. As a slang term for, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “A tramp or vagrant; a despicable or worthless person,” the epithet “toerag” simply refers to a poor person who wraps rags around his or her feet in lieu of socks. The term initially appeared in the literal sense of a rag wrapped around the foot inside a shoe in about 1864, but by 1875 it had become the synonym for “tramp” it remains today (“All them toe-rags, mate, got the manners of pigs,” Harold Pinter, 1960).

The equation of poverty and low moral character is, of course, sadly common in the English language, but the state of one’s feet seems especially prominent in the vocabulary of derision. “Down at the heels” has been a metaphor for “destitute” or “failure” since the early 18th century, referring to worn shoes the owner lacks the funds to fix. Similarly, “to be on one’s uppers” is a 19th century phrase meaning “to be broke,” invoking the image of one so poor that the heels of his shoes have worn away entirely, leaving only the upper part of the shoe remaining. To call someone a “heel,” however, simply means that the person (usually an untrustworthy, unscrupulous man) has demonstrated that, as the heel is the lowest, rearmost portion of the foot, he is the lowest form of human being. One can be a “heel” and wear very nice shoes.

12 comments to Toerag

  • Topi Linkala

    I have to point out that properly folded toerag is much more easing for the foot in long treks than a sock.

    The fiinish military still offers them for soldiers and those in the know use them on long marches.

  • I prefer “rapscallion,” myself. Or perhaps even scalliwag.

  • Pick the cats food up and put it on top of something..They can jump up onto and she cant reach…She will eat hers when she cant get ahold of the cats…

  • Sam Milsom

    The Term Toerag actually stems from early as the 1700’s possibly earlier. A toerag or Toe Rag is a length of rope which dangled in the water at the head of the ship, which is where the toilet is (or a hole which overhanged the water) hence the toilet being called The Head in the Royal Navy. The Toerag which was dangled in the water to keep clean was used to wipe your rear end, so you would want to be the first person to use the head in the morning as the Toerag would be fresh rather than by 11am would have been used by most of the ships company and would be rather rancid.

  • Toe Rag is a character in a book by Douglas Adams, A goblin in fact. “The long dark teatime of the soul”

  • Jeff Ward

    I believe tow rag originated as a rag soaked in grease use on ships when under tow to wrap round the tow rope to stop it chaffing on the deck.

  • Lizzie

    As a C17th re enactor, my understanding is that ‘tow rag’ is a menstruation cloth. ‘Tow’ being an old word for red. We still use it to describe red hair, as in a tow headed person. A tow rag is something, whose very existence we would prefer to ignore.

  • David SM

    I have always understood to call a person a ‘tow rag’ was to equate them to the wads of discarded, waste tow (hemp, flax, cotton etc.) used by engineers and machine minders in the old textile mills to clean oil etc. off their hands. In the days of steam trains, the drivers and firemen often had tow rags hanging from the pockets of their overalls. Similarly mechanics in garages. Therefore to call someone a tow rag was to equate them with a worthless wad of soiled tow.

  • Tow rag goes back to at least the 18th century, & it is simply what it says it is, a rag made from tow. Tow rag was often used in city & town homes for making tinder for fire lighting with flint,steel & tinderbox.
    Much later, in the 20th century it became an expression of derision, meaning lowest of the low. The same as bung hole meant lowest of the low in the 17th century. A bung hole was the drain hole in a variety of vessels.
    Regards, Keith.

  • Rubyfelixir

    It occurs to me that there might be some confusion caused by a resemblance with a word that would possibly be “towel-rag”, a cut off bit of towel used as a rag to absorb and clean up grease and oil.

  • Garvey Humphrey

    David S.M. gave the most accurate definition of ‘towrag’. I worked in and visited many factories before joining the Forces during WWII and towrag was the common name for the rags used for wiping down machinery. In the Army, the piece of cleaning rag, stored, 2ith the ‘pull-through’ in the butt of the Lee Enfield and No. 4 Rifles, was called a’4 by 2′ but was also called a towrag by many soldiers.

  • Gavin Alexander

    I think the origin of “toerag” may be from the Irish word, toruighe, for an outlaw or robber. The same word that gave rise to the word Tory. Obviously this version has the “g” pronounced, either from spread via writing, from the same word pronounced in a different dialect, or pronounced to reflect a different sense or context. It certainly embodies the right sort of negative connotations for an undesirable person (just like the Tories).


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