OK, this is going to be a bit of a stinker, so by all means have something fragrant to hand when reading.
London slang is well known for being pretty ripe. A lot of the expressions used come from things which are either disgusting in the first place, or from the kind of anger and sense of outrage you’d get from jamming too many people into too small a place, at at time before the discovery of germs and bacteria, before the development of effective sewage systems, and before the motor car took away our reliance on horses to get from A to B.
Toe rag is a prime example. It comes from a time when men wore stockings instead of socks, and is used as an insult, to describe someone who is the lowest of the low.
Note: Not to be confused with ‘snot-rag,’ which is a slang phrase for a handkerchief and never used as a term of abuse.
The toe rag, from which the term comes, was an item of clothing worn by men who were either too poor to afford stockings, or were criminals. They would wrap their feet up in scraps of cloth, which, unwashed, would end up in a very poor state indeed. It’s a relatively common situation among the homeless even today.
The first recorded use is in Experiences of a Convict, an 1864 book by J F Mortlock in which he says: “Stockings being unknown, some luxurious men wrapped round their feet a piece of old shirting, called, in language more expressive than elegant, a ‘toe-rag’”
So it’s a small jump from having a disgusting thing called a toe rag, to using it as a term of abuse.
The popularity of the phrase became particularly pronounced in the 1970s, when TV writers for hard-boiled cop shows like The Sweeney (which was itself named after the cockney rhyming slang for the Flying Squad, the section of the Metropolitan Police devoted to armed crimes. Sweeney Todd = Flying Squad.), found themselves unable to use swear words, and resorted to digging out Victorian slang instead. Of course, once it was on the TV, people from all over started to pick up on it as a very effective insult.
There is a rumour that the phase has an alternative origin, namely a ‘tow rag’, which is a length of rope sailors would carry with them and use as toilet paper on long voyages (then trail it in the sea to clean it). How true this story is is open to debate, however the phrase appears far more frequently as ‘toe rag’, and certainly would carry more weight as an insult if it came from a commonly understood situation.
Footnote: When the recording engineer Liam Watson wanted to set up a London-based, all-analogue recording studio, one devoted to capturing sound in all of its pungent glory, what did he call it? Oh yes.
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