March 25, 2013

Case File #013.03.25: TOWHEAD

Ever wonder why we use towhead when we talk about someone who has white or pale yellow hair? Well, the term towhead, which was coined in the United States circa 1830, actually derives from one of the lesser known meanings of the word tow. Sometime during the fourteenth century, English-speaking spinners and weavers began using tow to refer to the fibers extracted from plants such as flax and hemp. (This new Middle English noun probably evolved from the Old English adjective towlic, which meant “fit for spinning.”) Such fibers are generally white or a very light yellow, and when they are gathered together and combed in preparation for spinning, the resulting bundles—or rovings, as spinners call them—also have a texture and a sheen similar to those of human and animal hair. So now it makes sense, right? We call someone a towhead if they have a head of hair that resembles rovings of tow.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

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