And why is gas so cheap now that all the stores have closed?

Dear Word Detective: What is the true origin of the word “towrag” or “toerag,” meaning a rascally type of person? Has it any connection to the nomadic Berber Touareg tribe? Could there be a connection to the towing rag, suspended from a long load in a car or truck? I have even heard it might be related to a strip of cloth used for wrapping around the feet, in place of socks. I would appreciate a definitive explanation. — Irene Brackenridge.

Ah yes, wouldn’t we all? So many questions in life, so few answers. Why do cats invariably climb to the highest point in the room when they feel nauseated? Why does the bank charge so much for bounced checks when, by definition, you have no money? Why does the TiVo always decide not to record the season finale of your favorite show? And if life is such an awesome mystery, how come I’ve never been in a car chase?

You seem to have come up with a variety of interesting possibilities for the source of “toerag” (as it’s usually spelled), but the one tying the word to the Touareg (or Tuareg) people of North Africa has, perhaps surprisingly, more than a glimmer of plausibility. The Touareg, an ancient Saharan tribe, operated the great trade routes across the Sahara desert for more than two millennia until the French colonized the area in the 19th century (an incursion the Touareg fiercely resisted). The European colonization of the region had already given us the British slang term “street Arab” for a homeless, wandering child (“The hero and heroine began life as street Arabs of Glasgow,” 1883), so it wouldn’t be too surprising if colonial encounters with the Touareg had spawned another derogatory term in the streets of London.

Unfortunately, the actual origin of “toerag,” which dates back to the 19th century, is considerably less interesting and more depressing. As a slang term for, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “A tramp or vagrant; a despicable or worthless person,” the epithet “toerag” simply refers to a poor person who wraps rags around his or her feet in lieu of socks. The term initially appeared in the literal sense of a rag wrapped around the foot inside a shoe in about 1864, but by 1875 it had become the synonym for “tramp” it remains today (“All them toe-rags, mate, got the manners of pigs,” Harold Pinter, 1960).

The equation of poverty and low moral character is, of course, sadly common in the English language, but the state of one’s feet seems especially prominent in the vocabulary of derision. “Down at the heels” has been a metaphor for “destitute” or “failure” since the early 18th century, referring to worn shoes the owner lacks the funds to fix. Similarly, “to be on one’s uppers” is a 19th century phrase meaning “to be broke,” invoking the image of one so poor that the heels of his shoes have worn away entirely, leaving only the upper part of the shoe remaining. To call someone a “heel,” however, simply means that the person (usually an untrustworthy, unscrupulous man) has demonstrated that, as the heel is the lowest, rearmost portion of the foot, he is the lowest form of human being. One can be a “heel” and wear very nice shoes.

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