In the 1927 musical "Show Boat" there is a famous song -- Old Man River -- with the lyric "Tote that barge. Lift that bale." being sung by the slaves/laborers in the musical. The word tote typically means to carry and barge is a type of cargo ship. Since it is impossible for a man to carry a boat I am wondering about the usage. Are there any pre-1927 definitions for tote and/or barge that would allow this phrase to make logical sense?

PS: I saw this EL&U Question on "tote" already but the focus of that question is different than this one.

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    It means pulling the barge with a rope, walking along a towpath parallel to the waterway. Keep in mind that in the past not all barges were the behemoths one sees today.
    – Hot Licks
    Jul 29, 2015 at 11:57
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    And note that even if there was no pre-existing definition for "tote" to mean pulling, once the phrase "tow that barge" becomes commonplace it's apt to be transformed into "tote that barge". And, finally, one should really be consulting an AAVE dictionary.
    – Hot Licks
    Jul 29, 2015 at 20:57
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    As a side note, in the revival of Show Boat, they have a scene where the chorus is doing this at the very beginning of the musical... and it's pretty awesome.
    – Catija
    Jul 29, 2015 at 21:17
  • @Hot Licks: While I appreciate your enthusiasm, what you have written (TOW ---> TOTE) is speculation rather than provable fact. You might be right but then again it could just as easily be said that since the word tote appears likely to have African origins it may just have been a matter of African-born slaves hearing English "tow" and mentally translating it to their native word for carry/move. Stack Exchange insists on having sources for information. The source provided by Sven Yargs is at least substantial in that it shows clear usage (by non-slave contemporaries) related to towing barges.
    – O.M.Y.
    Jul 30, 2015 at 1:45
  • @HotLicks: On the other hand your comment about needing an AAVE (aka "Ebonics") dictionary is fairly easy to disprove through simple logic. All one needs to do is consider who the play/musical Show Boat was predominantly written for? Musicals are expensive to produce (even back then) and show investors would have insisted on pandering to the demographic with the most money to spend on theatre tickets. Logic dictates that the word tote would have needed to be commonly understood by white audiences.
    – O.M.Y.
    Jul 30, 2015 at 1:54

3 Answers 3


Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003) indicates the range of actions that tote can apply to:

tote vt {prob fr. an English-based creole; akin to Gullah & Krio tot to carry, of Bantu origin; akin to Kikongo -tota to pick up, Kimbundu -tuta to carry} (1677) 1 : to carry by hand : bear on the person : LUG, PACK : HAUL, CONVEY

The original meaning of "carry by hand" is the only one listed for tote in Merriam-Webster's American Dictionary of the English Language (1852):

TOTE v. t. To carry or bear {A word used in slaveholding countries ; said to have been introduced by the blacks. ... It is most used in the Southern and Middle United States, is occasionally heard in New England, and is said also to be used in England.}

But Webster's New University Pronouncing Dictionary (1856) includes the more-general second definition as well:

TOTE v. t. To carry or convey {Local.}

An example of toting in the sense of "conveying"—or more precisely, "towing" appears in Elbert Hubbard, "The Gentle Art of Defamation," in the Washington [D.C.] Herald (October 11, 1914) in a discussion of the hazards of transporting poorly manufactured gunpowder on board ships:

France has learned a bitter lesson in the line of manufacturing powder for itself. To date it has lost three battle ships.


And so we have the peculiar spectacle of a French battle ship going out for target practice, toting behind it a barge on which its powder was stored, this because the sailors would not take any chances. The powder was then carried on board, in small quantities and fired without delay. And what was left after the target practice was carefully carried back and deposited on the barge, which was pulled by a hawser of a generous length.

The Wikipedia entry for Towpath indicates that people sometimes pulled boats along waterways:

A towpath is a road or trail on the bank of a river, canal, or other inland waterway. The purpose of a towpath is to allow a land vehicle, beasts of burden, or a team of human pullers to tow a boat, often a barge. This mode of transport was common where sailing was impractical due to tunnels and bridges, unfavourable winds, or the narrowness of the channel.

The Free Dictionary, drawing its information from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979) reports that human "barge haulers" were employed in Russia from the late 1500s forward:

Barge Haulers

river workers who towed boats by means of ropes along the river bank or on the water by means of oars. The first barge haulers appeared in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Barge hauling expanded as a consequence of increased river transport at a time when the technical development of transportation by water was very imperfect.


Barge hauling declined in importance as technological advances were made. At the beginning of the 19th century there were as many as 600,000 barge haulers working along the Volga and Oka rivers; in 1851 there were about 150,000. As shipping developed, the number of barge haulers declined still further. By the beginning of the 20th century barge hauling had disappeared.

As phoog notes in a comment below aparente001's answer, Ilya Repin depicts Russian barge haulers in his painting Barge Haulers on the Volga, completed in 1873. It isn't at all difficult to imagine slaves in the United States performing the same laborious task as Repin's burlaki.

  • The idea that "tote" came from an African language is dismissed by OED: There is no foundation for an alleged origin in the black slave communities of the Southern States (and ultimately Africa); the quot. 1677 at sense 1 from Virginia does not refer to slaves; The 1677 quote is the first recorded use.
    – Greybeard
    Oct 22, 2022 at 18:56

Mules would pull barges down a canal. Maybe (shudder) people were also used to pull barges along a canal.

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    They certainly were, and not only on the Mississippi: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barge_Haulers_on_the_Volga
    – phoog
    Jul 29, 2015 at 5:38
  • But would "pulling" or "towing" really be the same as "carrying" ?
    – O.M.Y.
    Jul 29, 2015 at 6:10
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    @O.M.Y.: Yes, toting could mean simply towing. From Elbert Hubbard, "The Gentle Art of Defamation," in the Washington [D.C.] Herald (October 11, 1914): "And so we have the peculiar spectacle of a French battle ship going out for target practice, toting behind it a barge on which its powder was stored, this because the sailors would not take any chances."
    – Sven Yargs
    Jul 29, 2015 at 6:23
  • @SvenYargs: You should post your comment as an Answer. It has everything I asked for and more, including a citable reference to a pre-1927 source showing a clear usage example that is consistent with the lyrics.
    – O.M.Y.
    Jul 29, 2015 at 13:55

Here is an example from 1814 where it means to tow (by horse).

Perambulations of Cosmopolite: Or, Travels and Labors of Lorenzo Dow,

I came to a camp where some negroes were toting* tobacco to market. I stopped with them until day, and one gave me some corn for my horse.

*The mode of toting tobacco to market, is by rolling it in casks, with a wooden axle through the midst, on the ends of which are fastened the shafts for the horse to draw it by.

Four Volumes of Lorenzo's Journal Concentrated Into One By Lorenzo Dow January 1, 1814

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