• tow •
Pronunciation: tow • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Verb; noun
Meaning: 1. (Verb) To pull with a rope, chain, tow bar. 2. (Noun) The act of towing or cable, or the rope, chain, tow bar, or cable used to tow things. 3. (Noun) The fiber of raw or refined flax, hemp, or jute before or well after spinning.
Notes: Today we get two words for the price of one—and for a very reasonable price at that. The two meanings of tow are connected by a coincidentally identical sound and spelling. The verb comes with a family of derivations: tower, towage, and towable. The noun is a constituent in many compounds, including tow-sack, towhead, and tow-headed.
In Play: When used figuratively, we can ignore the tow rope: "The woman had a small tow-headed child, tears streaming down his cheeks, in tow behind her." The other noun is used only in compounds, like tow-sack "burlap bag": "My daddy carried the few tools he owned around in an old tow-sack."
Word History: The verb tow was togian "drag, pull" in Old English. It became tug and tow in Modern English, products of different dialects. Both these words go back to PIE deuk- "pull", which also produced both German zücken "to draw, pull out" and ziehen "to pull, drag". The same PIE word emerged in Latin as ducere "to lead, direct, draw", the root of which we see in borrowings like conduct, deduct, reduce. The noun in Old English was tow- "spinning", as in tow-hus "spinning-room", from the same source as Middle Dutch touwen "to knit, weave". This word was a descendant of Proto-Germanic taw- "to make". Old English tawian meant "prepare, make". The original meaning of the English noun tow referred to hemp and flax combed for spinning but not yet spun, that was towlic "ready for spinning". (Both of today's uncommonly fascinating Good Words were recommended by a newcomer to the Alpha Agora, Barbara Beeton.)