[Ads-l] "tow" and "towboat" meaning to push

James A. Landau JJJRLandau at NETSCAPE.COM
Tue Nov 10 13:22:55 UTC 2015

In all other contexts that I know of, "to tow" means "to pull".  However, on the Mississippi and its tributaries, and probably other places, a boat that *pushes* barges is a "towboat", is said to "tow" the barges, and the group of barges that it pushes is called a "tow".

Does anyone know when this variant usage of "tow" began?  Obviously not until steamboats or Diesel-powered boats started pushing barges, but I haven't been able to find an early citation.  ("Tow boat" is found in Google Books as early as 1746).

- Jim Landau

PS: would this qualify as an auto-antonym, "tow" meaning either "push" or "pull"?

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