Mind Your Language: Toe-Rag

By Wordsworth, Dot | The Spectator, July 19, 2014 | Go to article overview

Mind Your Language: Toe-Rag


Wordsworth, Dot, The Spectator


'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. …

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