Just a whimsical question...

When one says that they have "lost the rag" - it usually means they've gotten impatient or lost their temper. But what does the 'rag' refer to and how did the phrase originate?

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    I've never heard "He lost the rag" - in the UK it's always "He lost his rag". – FumbleFingers Jan 10 '13 at 16:05

The Free Dictionary has some info on this:

lose one's rag: to lose one's temper suddenly.

[probably back formation from RAGGED, from Old English raggig ; related to Old Norse rögg tuft]

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The Oxford English Dictionary says to lose one's rag is a colloquial British phrase with a first quotation from Harry Lauder's Roamin' in the Gloamin' (1928):

Finally, losing his rag completely, he extended his fingers to his nose and challenged any three men in the audience to come up on the platform and fight him!

This is sense P4.b., and the related P4.a. phrase are the earlier to get (someone's) rag out (to make (someone) angry) and to get one's rag out (to become angry). These are originally from Yorkshire, first quotation 1862, with unknown origin but suggest a comparison with red rag (1720, a piece of red cloth to provoke an animal, as in like a red rag to a bull) and the verb rag (1739, to scold).

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Apparently the 'rag' in question here is your tongue, or control over it: http://users.tinyonline.co.uk/gswithenbank/sayingsc.htm#Chew%20the%20rag

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  • This is a Broken Link... – Chowzen Feb 5 at 22:31

I don't know what the origin of the term is at all- almost certainly belonging to a trade where one would use a rag a lot and reflecting the intense annoyance of having lost something you just had a moment ago.

There is a term, "rag haulers" for sailing boats. Given how many terms are of nautical origin there may be a sailing connection here, but like most widely used but rarely recorded terms it would be very easy to extrapolate it's story in a hundred different ways. Rag is also cockney rhyming slang for "fag" ( as in cigarette ) but I would be very surprised if the phrase didn't predate the cigarette by a long time.

Unrelated but I'm struck by the similarity between "rag" and "rage".

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My personal theory... "Lose his rag" originates from "Loose his rage". That is, to let loose ones rage, which I think has a biblical reference... something like "The Lord shall let loose his rage".

I worked with a Scottish bloke, Glaswegian born and bred, who was sure that "Lose his rag" was a Scottish phrase. That just set me thinking, and I could imagine an over enthusiastic Scottish presbyterian minister bellowing from the pulpit that "The Lord would loose his rage", only spoken in a thick Scottish brogue this would sound to some people like "The Lord shall lose his rag".

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Before women had access to modern sanitary items for their monthly visit, they had to use home made cotton/natural fibre pads that they would have to wash and re-use. They were referred to as rags; even in the Bible it referred to these rags:

Their good works were as filthy rags.

Men have always dismissed women who have lost their temper as losing their rags meaning they were only in a bad mood/short tempered because of their period.

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  • I do believe this has no connection whatever to the phrase in question. There is more than adequate reason to be sure that the accepted answer is the correct one. The phrase is clearly used in connection with men getting angry (raging), so your bringing women's monthlies into it -- well that is the only sexist thing happening here. – Cyberherbalist Nov 6 '13 at 22:32
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    I don't see how citing a 17th century of an English bible makes this answer clearer. The contexts do not seem to match. – Michael Owen Sartin Nov 6 '13 at 23:30

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