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The meaning and origin of the expression: Rag, tag and bobtail

Rag, tag and bobtail

What's the meaning of the phrase 'Rag, tag and bobtail'?

A common rabble - the hoi polloi.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Rag, tag and bobtail'?

UK folk of a certain age will remember Rag, Tag and Bobtail as characters from the eponymous BBC children's television programme. On the face of it we could be forgiven for thinking that the names were made up for the show, but, like Andy Pandy - which was clearly influenced by the name namby-pamby, Rag, Tag and Bobtail derives from an earlier phrase.

The meaning and origin of the phrase 'Rag, tag and bobtail'.
The children's television programme Rag, Tag
and Bobtail
took it's name from a 17th century
English phrase.

A bobtail was the tail a horse which was cut short. Shakespeare makes reference to the word in King Lear, 1605. Soon after that it was used by John Fletcher, in Monsieur Thomas, 1619, as slang for a cur or contemptible rascal. A tag was a piece of torn, hanging-down cloth. Those were combined with rag to form the earlier version of the phrase - tag, rag and bobtail. This was recorded by Samuel Pepys in his Diary for 6th March 1659:

"The dining-room... was full of tag, rag, and bobtail, dancing, singing, and drinking."

The later form 'raggle-taggle' is an extension of 'rag-tag'. This was in use from the end of the 19th century, for example, in Sabine Baring-Gould's novel, Urith: a tale of Dartmoor, 1891:

"A raggle-taggle, beggarly crew."

That version of the expression is best remembered via the popular English folk song The Raggle-Taggle Gypsy. This was collected in Somerset by the founding father of the English folk song revival Cecil Sharp. With Charles Marson, Sharp published Folk Songs from Somerset, 1904:

What care I for my house and my land?
What care I for my money, O?
What care I for my new wedded lord?
I'm off with the wraggle taggle gipsies, O!

Rag, Tag and Bobtail may have ended up as the names of the cute and harmless nursery characters on BBC children's Television, but that naming was, probably quite innocently, derived from a less than savoury bunch. A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew, circa 1700, lists the definition of Riff-Raff as:

The Rabble or Scum of the People, Tagrag and Longtail

See other reduplicated phrases.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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