Mind your language

Origins of the toe-rag

It has nothing to do with rivers or the House of Commons

19 July 2014

9:00 AM

19 July 2014

9:00 AM

‘I am glad to say that I have never seen a toe-rag,’ said my husband, assuming, as unconvincingly as one would expect, the demeanour of Gwendolen from The Importance of Being Earnest. ‘It is obvious that our social spheres have been widely different.’

I had been mentioning the perverse tendency of the human race to defend their own amateur etymological theories, even when convicted of gross error. A vigorous example at the moment is tow-rag, a catachrestic version of toe-rag, a term of abuse taken from the practice of wrapping rags round the toes. ‘Stockings being unknown,’ wrote J.F. Mortlock in his memoirs of convict life in the 1840s and 1850s, ‘some luxurious men wrapped round their feet a piece of old shirting, called, in language more expressive than elegant, a “-toe-rag”.’


There has been continuous documentation of the word in this sense for the past 150 years, and for almost as long in the opprobrious metaphorical sense. Yet you come across people, as I have more than once in recent weeks, who insist that the term is properly tow-rag, deriving from a rag tied to a tow-line, either on the road or on the river. It would, they insist, become dirty, naturally: hence the amplified phrase ‘dirty tow-rag’. Quite mad and without a shred of foundation, but there’s no telling them.

A more entrenched error concerns toeing the line, which, being a satisfactorily dead metaphor, is susceptible to any kind of ill treatment. People imagine that it is the same tow-line, with or without helpful rag, so handy for figures of speech. Others, while accepting the digital toes, place them on a line drawn on the floor of the House of Commons intended to keep at a safe distance opposing gents with swords. There are such lines, but no Speaker has ever been recorded ordering Hon. members to ‘Toe the line!’

One of Mr Verdant Green’s pugilistic friends speaks of ‘toeing the scratch for business’ in the wildly popular novel by Cuthbert Bede (Edward Bradley), published in 1854, and it is this scratch, mark or line that in sporting or military contexts provides the line to be toed in metaphor. Since spelling is a convention, spellers must toe the line too.

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  • Arthur Thistlewood

    The derivation suggested is, of course, correct. It misses an interesting semantic stream feeding into the meaning and use of the word, however. It had a fillip of popularity after the 2nd World War and lasting into the 1960s but at that time had acquired a new denotation (in the minds of the users): the existing word was re-used as a cant, pejorative, racist (obviously) version of the word Tuareg, a group of indigenous people encountered by soldiers serving in the north African campaigns. (The soldierly process of vulgar comic misrepresentation is the same one used to produce ‘Wipers’ from ‘Ypres’ in the 1st World War.)

    Thus, for people using the word after the war, it meant something new – the meaning, or the referent, had changed and the user did not have in mind pieces of cloth.

    • Donafugata

      Didn’t you used to be on Call My Bluff?

    • Fergus Pickering

      You are obviously right. The word has always meant a greasy arab to me.

  • Brimstone52

    “A more entrenched error concerns toeing the line, which, being a satisfactorily dead metaphor”

    Not so, one stand with one’s toes on the oche.

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    Are you passing through any of these problems,

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    ARE YOU A STAR AND YOU WANT TO BE SO POPULAR TO THE WHOLE WORLD

    DO YOU WANT TO BE RICH

    DO YOU WANT YOUR BUSINESS TO KEEP MOVING

    DO YOU HAVE A COMPANY OF ANY KIND AND YOU WANT IT TO EXPAND

    DO YOU WANT YOUR HUSBAND OR WIFE TO KEEP TO YOUR WORLD

    ARE YOU FACING ANY MARITAL PROBLEMS

    ARE YOU FINDING IT DIFFICULT TO GET PREGNANT FOR YOUR HUSBAND

    ARE YOU EXPERIENCING MISCARRIAGES ANY TIME YOU TAKE IN

    DO YOU WANT TO COMPETE IN ANY LOTTERY GAME

    ARE YOU FACING HARDSHIP

    HAVE YOU BEEN THREATENED BY SOMEONE

    DO YOU WANT TO BE SUCCESSFUL IN ANY THING YOU LAY YOUR HANDS ON

    IS YOUR SON OR DAUGHTER BEHAVING STRANGELY

    ARE YOU FACING WITCH CRAFT MANIPULATIONS

    DO YOU WANT TO CAST A STRONG LOVE SPELL ON YOUR GIRL OR BOY FRIEND

    DO YOU NEED MAGIC POWERS TO DO ANY THING YOU WANT

    ARE YOU FINDING IT DIFFICULT TO CHOOSE A LIFE PARTNER

    DO YOU WANT YOUR PARENTS TO BE PROUD OF YOU

    ARE YOU EXPERIENCING FAILURE AND DISAPPOINTMENT IN ANY THING YOU DO.(ETC)

    IF you are in any condition like this,or you have any problem related to “bringing your ex back. So thanks to Dr Brave for bringing back my wife,and brought great joy to my family once again.{bravespellcaster@gmail.com} , Thanks.

  • Thanks to Dr Brave for bringing back my wife,and brought great joy to my family?

    Hello to every one out here, am here to share the unexpected miracle that happened to me three days ago, My name is Jeffrey Dowling,i live in TEXAS,USA.and I`m happily married to a lovely and caring wife,with two kids A very big problem occurred in my family seven months ago,between me and my wife so terrible that she took the case to court for a divorce she said that she never wanted to stay with me again,and that she did not love me anymore So she packed out of my house and made me and my children passed through severe pain. I tried all my possible means to get her back,after much begging,but all to no avail and she confirmed it that she has made her decision,and she never wanted to see me again. So on one evening,as i was coming back from work,i met an old friend of mine who asked of my wife So i explained every thing to her,so she told me that the only way i can get my wife back,is to visit a spell caster,because it has really worked for her too So i never believed in spell,but i had no other choice,than to follow her advice. Then she gave me the email address of the spell caster whom she visited.(bravespellcaster@gmail.com}, So the next morning,i sent a mail to the address she gave to me,and the spell caster assured me that i will get my wife back the next day what an amazing statement!! I never believed,so he spoke with me,and told me everything that i need to do. Then the next morning, So surprisingly, my wife who did not call me for the past seven {7}months,gave me a call to inform me that she was coming back So Amazing!! So that was how she came back that same day,with lots of love and joy,and she apologized for her mistake,and for the pain she caused me and my children. Then from that day,our relationship was now stronger than how it were before,by the help of a spell caster . So, was now stronger than how it were before,by the help of a spell caster . So, i will advice you out there to kindly visit the same website http://bravespellcaster.yolasite.com,if you are in any condition like this,or you have any problem related to “bringing your ex back. So thanks to Dr Brave for bringing back my wife,and brought great joy to my family once again.{bravespellcaster@gmail.com} , Thanks.

    Are you passing through any of these problems,

    DO YOU NEED YOUR EX BACK VERY FAST

    DON YOU WANT YOUR LOVER TO LOVE YOU AS NEVER LIKE BEFORE

    ARE YOU SUFFERING FROM A LONG TIME SICKNESS

    ARE YOU FACING FINANCIAL PROBLEMS

    ARE YOU SEEKING FOR A GOOD JOB

    DO YOU WANT TO BECOME A HOUSE OWNER

    ARE YOU LOOKING FOR A FIRST CLASS GRADE

    DO YOU WANT TO COME OUT FIRST IN YOUR EXAMS

    ARE YOU A STAR AND YOU WANT TO BE SO POPULAR TO THE WHOLE WORLD

    DO YOU WANT TO BE RICH

    DO YOU WANT YOUR BUSINESS TO KEEP MOVING

    DO YOU HAVE A COMPANY OF ANY KIND AND YOU WANT IT TO EXPAND

    DO YOU WANT YOUR HUSBAND OR WIFE TO KEEP TO YOUR WORLD

    ARE YOU FACING ANY MARITAL PROBLEMS

    ARE YOU FINDING IT DIFFICULT TO GET PREGNANT FOR YOUR HUSBAND

    ARE YOU EXPERIENCING MISCARRIAGES ANY TIME YOU TAKE IN

    DO YOU WANT TO COMPETE IN ANY LOTTERY GAME

    ARE YOU FACING HARDSHIP

    HAVE YOU BEEN THREATENED BY SOMEONE

    DO YOU WANT TO BE SUCCESSFUL IN ANY THING YOU LAY YOUR HANDS ON

    IS YOUR SON OR DAUGHTER BEHAVING STRANGELY

    ARE YOU FACING WITCH CRAFT MANIPULATIONS

    DO YOU WANT TO CAST A STRONG LOVE SPELL ON YOUR GIRL OR BOY FRIEND

    DO YOU NEED MAGIC POWERS TO DO ANY THING YOU WANT

    ARE YOU FINDING IT DIFFICULT TO CHOOSE A LIFE PARTNER

    DO YOU WANT YOUR PARENTS TO BE PROUD OF YOU

    ARE YOU EXPERIENCING FAILURE AND DISAPPOINTMENT IN ANY THING YOU DO.(ETC)

    IF you are in any condition like this,or you have any problem related to “bringing your ex back. So thanks to Dr Brave for bringing back my wife,and brought great joy to my family once again.{bravespellcaster@gmail.com} , Thanks.

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