In Reply to: Tow-rag posted by Smokey Stover on September 28, 2009 at 16:42:
: : : : : I understand the meaning of the phrase Tow-rag, to come from the pad of teased out old rope that Royal Navy sailors of the 18th/19th century used to use when they visited 'the head'(toilet on the bow of the ship). Paper was far too expensive to use, so old rope, known as tow, was used and was then washed out and kept in one's pocket until needed again. Hence the derisory term to call someone a tow-rag.
: : : : I am no expert, but paper wasn't expensive in the 18th-19th Centuries, surely? There was no shortage of the raw materials, and the proliferation of books, newspapers, journals, etc would seem to indicate that it was cheap enough.
: : : : My understanding has always been that it is spelled 'toe rag', and refers to the rags that tramps and others would use to wrap around their feet rather than the comparatively expensive socks: an unattractive object, and thus used to insult those people deemed suitably unappealing.
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: : : : DFG
: : : DFG is entirely correct that the spelling has always been "toe rag", meaning "rag wrapped roung the toes". And the OP is entirely mistaken in suggesting that teased-out old rope was called "tow". "Tow" as a noun means "not-yet-processed flax" (i.e the raw material of linen - a potentially valuable commodity). Teased-out old rope was called oakum; "picking oakum" was the proverbial occupation of convicts. (VSD)
: : http://www.phrases.org.uk/bulletin_board/24/messages/87.html
: ESC has provided a link to a previous discussion in the Archive in which some discussants mistakenly hypothesized a connection with Tuareg, the automobile and the African population after whom the automobile was improbably named. One discussant wondered how to pronounce Tuareg. English is not particularly phonetic in its spelling, but this word is: twa-reg. The best easily available disclussion of the Tuareg is that in the Wikipedia.
I asked with regard to Tow Rag, and David FG said he did not think that paper was that expensive at the time and would be readily available. Well two things, one, paper was still being made by hand at that time, news print would not become mass produced made from wood pulp till 1838, up till then ironically, rags were used in the making of paper, to such an extent that they had to be imported, something the Napoleonic War made even more difficult, so I think people would most likely be bare foot anyway, not wrapped in wrags.
Two, even if paper had been common, how are you going to get it when you are aboard a sailing ship that may be at sea for weeks if not months on end on blockade duty?