• towhead •
tow-hed • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: 1. A light-haired person, a person with blond or light tan hair. 2. An unkempt, tousled head of hair or someone possessed of one. 3. A sandbar or small island in a river.
Notes: Today's Good Word comes with an adjective, towheaded, which is used as often as the noun. The word tow is most generally associated with the color tow, for we find it in several other compounds reflecting that meaning, such as tow-haired and tow-colored.
In Play: Towheads are more often children whose hair color is likely to darken as they age: "Hedda Hair was a towhead as a child and today she maintains that same light color chemically." Because of the similarity of its pronunciation with that of tousle, no doubt, today it has assumed the meaning of that word: "That little towhead looks as though his hair has never known the benefits of comb or brush." In this case, the hair may be of any color.
Word History: The word tow comes from old methods of spinning. It is related to tousle "rough up (hair)" and tease in the sense of roughing up hair. In Old English, the ancestor of tease (tæsan) meant "to pull apart", and was used in reference to pulling apart wool and flax fibers before spinning. In fact, the verb to tow meant "to comb or card flax" in the 17th century. This makes the noun a cousin of Old Norse tó "raw wool or flax". Apparently it also referred to the hemp fibers, for we see it in tow-sack, tow-bag, and tow-string. (Now let's thank former tow-head Roger A. Meyer for suggesting today's common but mysterious Good Word.)