I came out of the swimming pool yesterday, toweled off my hair, looked at myself in the mirror, and thought I looked positively stupeous.

Yes, that’s a real word, but not one often used. What does it mean? The context may not be especially helpful. Could it be… stupendous? No deal: the missing nd makes all the difference. Could it be… stupid? Stupefied? In a stupor? No again – no relation, in fact.

On the other hand, it does have a little in common with that towel I used. Towels tend to have little fibres sticking up from them, at least the kind of terry towels one uses after bathing. And the effect they have on hair is similar: they leave it sticking up in tufts and clumps or matted down. The appearance can be of what is called tow – which is the third resemblance to towel, in that it’s the first three letters (purely by coincidence; no relation).

And what is tow? In this case, it’s something you may not have much truck with: a bunch of flax or hemp (or other) fibres, untwisted – ready for making into rope – and thus sticking up like, hmm, well, like the hair on the head of Bart Simpson or Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes. Incidentally, this tow is unrelated to the tow that you can do with the rope that will be made of it.

And what has this all to do with stupeous? Well, stupeous comes from Latin stupeus, from stupa, ‘tow’. If something is stupeous, it is like tow. More to the point, it is covered in matted or tufted hairs or filaments. You could say it’s floccose or tomentose; the sense at least overlaps.

So if you have toweled hair or bedhead, you may look stupendous or you may look stupefied or just stupid, but if your hair is short and stand-up-eous you will at least look stupeous.

3 responses to “stupeous

  1. Hmmm… So, you’re saying that your face looks like a Buddhist stupa with prayers stuck all over it, kinda?
    Nice image.
    I am glad to finally know where tow-headed comes from. That is one that has bugged me for ages. Thank you.

  2. Virginia Clark

    When my sister Cindy was growing up (in the NE USA) people would stop in the street and exclaim “oh was a cute little tow-head”. Tow-head meant that rare, almost white-blond hair and the phrase referred to the colour, not its attitude on the head. Now that I know what tow is I wonder why only white-blond hair took on the image – perhaps from tufts of cotton fiber? It did seem like a Southern expression, come to think of it. As it was, I wondered for a long time why people thought my sister’s hair looked like those ten cute appendages on her two cute little feet. No one pronounced it Tau.

    • Tow is generally hemp or jute, which is blonde, pretty much. I reckon that’s why.

      “Toe” seems to be the preferred pronunciation, used commonly and given by the dictionaries, although for some reason Wikipedia claims that it should be like “tau” for the hemp or jute fibres.

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