TOWHEAD: persons with straw-like coloring to their hair

We were sitting in a restaurant when we saw the little boy with the almost-white hair and my wife commented on his being a towhead.  I agreed, and then we began discussing the meaning of the word. Neither of us had a clue as to why a person with blonde, nearly-white hair is called a towhead.  So, living in character, I looked it up.

It turns out that there is a word called tow.  It refers to flax, a fiber used in weaving.   It is one of the basic fibers used in the making of linen.   One resource, found on Yahoo! refers to the word as emerging from Colonial America, when women (primarily) would glean fibers from grown products, cure them, and then weave them into a fabric.   The original article is from The Washington Post.

In colonial times, families grew their own flax to make into fabric for clothing. Transforming the flax into thread was a complicated, involved process with many time-consuming steps. After the flax was harvested, it was soaked in water for several days to soften it so the inner fibers could be removed from the stalk. To separate the long, thin fibers from the shorter, coarser ones, the flax was pulled through a bed of nails or combed in a process called “towing.” The shorter fibers that were extricated were of a lesser quality and were called “tow.” This led to the term “towheads” to describe people, particularly children, whose hair resembled these strands.

There are other references which take the meaning all the way back to Medieval times, but I suspect our use of the term today is pretty much dependent upon this meaning from Colonial America.  My new friend, The Urban Dictionary, reminds me that touw is a Middle German word meaning flaxen.   Clearly then, the word predates Colonial America, but our references seem to lead there.  One resource pointed out the common use of the word in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Hucklebery Finn.   I suspect there is some validity to tracing it there.  Most of us seem to think of towhead as being tousled, unruly as well as flaxen.  Who is the better model of that style of hair that our friend Huck?

It seems to me that the towhead phenomenon is pretty much confined to children.  I may be wrong, but it seems to me that children that I have known to be towheads have tended to outgrow the coloring at some point in their lives.   One woman, in a comment on one of the resource sites, reports that her towhead appearance disappeared at puberty.  That makes some kind of sense.   The only adults I know about who bear the characteristic I have known as towhead have indulged in a little chemical re-alignment of their hair color.

All that having been said, I have just one other characteristic to add to the discussion.  I find that towheaded children are lively, exceedingly happy, and aggressive.   Maybe that’s not fair as a stereotyping, but it seems to fit my experience. I’d be happy to know otherwise.


Photo Credit: Jill of All Trades

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  1. I believe your characteristic fits. Doug was a towhead! Need I say more?

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