My friend’s son Zach was as bald as a cue ball for the first year of his life. Now the little maniac’s hair is coming in thick and blond. I guess that means he’s a towhead, but that raises the question: How exactly did that phrase get started? How did blond kids get that nickname?
An excellent article from the good people at Random House lays out the basics. The word “tow” in this case “is from a Germanic word meaning ‘to drag’; it’s related to tug.” Put another way, it means ‘the fiber of flax, hemp, or jute, prepared for spinning’. Those fibers, which are used to make clothes, are often “both light-colored and messy.” Hence, little kids with light-colored (and messed-up) hair are called tow-heads.
A 2003 column from Ask Yahoo! goes into a bit more detail. In colonial times, families harvested flax to make their own clothes. Once it was harvested, it went through a process “to separate the long, thin fibers from the shorter, coarser ones.” To do this, “the flax was pulled through a bed of nails or combed in a process called ‘towing.’”
The shorter fibers were called “tow.” This, in turn, “led to the term “towheads” to describe people, particularly children, whose hair resembled these strands.”
So, that’s the story of towheads. But now I have another question. Redheads can be both male and female, same as blonds. But what about folks with dark hair? Dark-haired women are called brunettes, but does that apply to men too? Or are they just “dark-haired”? Any theories? I’m all ears.
Thanks for reading,
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