Q: I just caught the tail end of Pat’s comments on WNYC about the term “towhead.” I was at a colonial mill in Tarrytown, NY, when the docent explained that the term comes from the light color of flax, which was used to make “towrope” for canal barges.
A: The “tow” in “towhead,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, refers to “the fibre of flax, hemp, or jute prepared for spinning.”
Since flax is light in color, blond people (especially children) are sometimes referred to as “towheads” or “towheaded,” expressions first recorded in the 19th century.
The “tow” in the “towrope” (or “towline”) used to pull a canal barge is a horse of another color. The OED says it’s derived from togian, an Old English word meaning to pull or drag.
As for “towhead” (also spelled “tow head” or “tow-head”) and “towheaded” (also “tow-headed”), Oxford has several citations, including an 1884 reference in Harper’s Magazine to “tow-headed children rolling about in the orchards.”
If you remember, Pat mentioned on the air that mistaken spellings (or hearings) of these “tow” terms can be humorous. She once read of “a cute little two-headed boy.”
A caller to the program said she used to think the expression was “toe headed,” and couldn’t imagine what such a phrase meant.
The noun “tow” used in the fiber sense came into English in the 14th century, but its earlier sources remain uncertain.
The word is “perhaps related” to the Old Norse noun tó, which meant “uncleansed wool or flax, unworked fibre of thread,” the OED says.
“The original sense may have been ‘textile fibre’ generally,” Oxford adds.
John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins ventures another suggestion—that “tow” was borrowed from a word in Middle Low German, touw.
Ayto says the term “probably went back to the pre-historic Germanic base tow-, taw-,” meaning to make or prepare “in the specialized sense ‘make yarn from wool, spin.’ ”
The “towrope” mentioned by the docent at the mill may once have been made of tow fiber, but its name comes from the verb “tow” (to pull), which dates back to about the year 1000.
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