Q From Tessa Huyshe: Toe-rag or tow-rag? I can’t find it in any dictionary, slang dictionary or Fowler’s. What’s the derivation?
A Aha, another term from that inexhaustible store of rude British slang expressions (though it is also well-known in Australia). It means that the person addressed is contemptible or worthless, a scrounger. Though it can be a relatively mild insult among friends, you should avoid saying it to strangers unless you want a smack in the mush or a punch up the bracket.
The original form — in the nineteenth century — was toe rag. It referred to the strips of cloth that convicts or tramps wrapped around their feet as an inadequate substitute for socks. The first recorded use is by J F Mortlock in his Experiences of a Convict of 1864: “Stockings being unknown, some luxurious men wrapped round their feet a piece of old shirting, called, in language more expressive than elegant, a ‘toe-rag’ ”. It didn’t take long to become a term of abuse — in 1875 a book on British circus life said that “Toe rags is another expression of contempt ... used ... chiefly by the lower grades of circus men, and the acrobats who stroll about the country, performing at fairs”.
It seems to have come to wider British knowledge and use from the 1970s on, largely because it was aired in the ITV police series The Sweeney about the London mobile detective force called the flying squad (rhyming slang: flying squad = Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street), a programme that delighted in using London slang.
The tow-rag spelling is sometimes seen because people have lost the link to the original sense, long since obsolete.