Someone who is tow-headed has light-colored or tousled hair. Whence comes the word tow?
Tow is another name for flax, a light-colored, fibrous plant once commonly used to make thread. Tow is of uncertain origin. It may be connected to the Old Norse tó, meaning fiber that has yet to be spun into thread, and there is the Middle Dutch touwen, meaning to weave. But the connection between these words is not known. The English word dates to the late 14th century when in appears in William Langland’s 1377 Piers Plowman (B text):
Ac hew fyre at a flynte fowre hundreth wyntre But þow haue towe to take it with tondre or broches Al þi laboure is loste.
(But you can make a spark with a flint for four hundred winters but you must have tow to use as tinder or brush or all the labor is lost.)
The expression tow-headed dates to the mid-19th century. From Sylvester Judd’s 1850 novel Richard Edney and the Governor’s Family:
Bronze-faced and tow-headed Wild Olive boys.
(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)
Copyright 1997-2013, by David Wilton