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  1. a worthless piece of cloth, especially one that is torn or worn.
  2. rags, ragged or tattered clothing: The tramp was dressed in rags.
  3. any article of apparel regarded deprecatingly or self-deprecatingly, especially a dress: It's just an old rag I had in the closet.
  4. a shred, scrap, or fragmentary bit of anything.
  5. Informal.
    1. something of very low value or in very poor condition.
    2. a newspaper or magazine regarded with contempt or distaste: Are you still subscribing to that rag?
  6. a person of shabby or exhausted appearance.
  7. a large roofing slate that has one edge untrimmed.
  1. chew the rag. chew(def 11).
  2. from rags to riches, from extreme poverty to great wealth: He went from rags to riches in only three years.

Origin of rag1

1275–1325; Middle English ragge < Scandinavian; compare Norwegian, Swedish ragg coarse hair < Old Norse rǫgg


verb (used with object), ragged, rag·ging.
  1. to scold.
  2. to subject to a teasing, especially in an intense or prolonged way (often followed by on): Some of the boys were ragging on him about his haircut.
  3. British. to torment with jokes; play crude practical jokes on.
  1. British. an act of ragging.

Origin of rag2

First recorded in 1790–1800; origin uncertain


verb (used with object), ragged, rag·ging.
  1. to break up (lumps of ore) for sorting.

Origin of rag3

First recorded in 1870–75; origin uncertain


  1. a musical composition in ragtime: a piano rag.
verb (used with object), ragged, rag·ging.
  1. to play (music) in ragtime.

Origin of rag4

First recorded in 1895–1900; shortened form of ragtime
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2018

Examples from the Web for rags

Contemporary Examples

Historical Examples

  • The sky was now clear, the air frosty, and my rags were but a scant protection to me.

    Biography of a Slave

    Charles Thompson

  • Rags and tidiness, filth and cleanliness, lay almost touching.


    Mary Roberts Rinehart

  • Levi's companion dropped to the sand without a sound, like a bundle of rags.

  • All hands were called, and the rags were rolled up, and the gaskets passed.

    Ned Myers

    James Fenimore Cooper

  • He was in rags, and carried the usual beggar's wallet for food or alms.

    Welsh Fairy Tales

    William Elliott Griffis

British Dictionary definitions for rags


pl n
  1. torn, old, or shabby clothing
  2. cotton or linen cloth waste used in the manufacture of rag paper
  3. from rags to riches informal
    1. from poverty to great wealth
    2. (as modifier)a rags-to-riches tale
  4. glad rags informal best clothes; finery


    1. a small piece of cloth, such as one torn from a discarded garment, or such pieces of cloth collectively
    2. (as modifier)a rag doll; a rag book; rag paper
  1. a fragmentary piece of any material; scrap; shred
  2. informal a newspaper or other journal, esp one considered as worthless, sensational, etc
  3. informal an item of clothing
  4. informal a handkerchief
  5. British slang esp nautical a flag or ensign
  6. lose one's rag to lose one's temper suddenly
See also rags

Word Origin

C14: probably back formation from ragged, from Old English raggig; related to Old Norse rögg tuft


verb rags, ragging or ragged (tr)
  1. to draw attention facetiously and persistently to the shortcomings or alleged shortcomings of (a person)
  2. British to play rough practical jokes on
  1. British a boisterous practical joke, esp one on a fellow student
  2. (in British universities)
    1. a period, usually a week, in which various events are organized to raise money for charity, including a procession of decorated floats and tableaux
    2. (as modifier)rag day

Word Origin

C18: of uncertain origin


  1. a piece of ragtime music
verb rags, ragging or ragged
  1. (tr) to compose or perform in ragtime

Word Origin

C20: shortened from ragtime


  1. a roofing slate that is rough on one side

Word Origin

C13: of obscure origin
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Word Origin and History for rags



scrap of cloth, early 14c., probably from Old Norse rögg "shaggy tuft," earlier raggw-, or possibly from Old Danish rag (see rug), or a back-formation from ragged, It also may represent an unrecorded Old English cognate of Old Norse rögg. Watkins traces the Old Norse word through Proto-Germanic *rawwa-, from PIE root *reue- "to smash, knock down, tear up, uproot" (see rough (adj.)).

As an insulting term for "newspaper, magazine" it dates from 1734; slang for "tampon, sanitary napkin" is attested from 1930s (on the rag "menstruating" is from 1948). Rags "personal clothing" is from 1855 (singular), American English. Rags-to-riches "rise from poverty to wealth" is attested by 1896. Rag-picker is from 1860; rag-shop from 1829.



"scold," 1739, of unknown origin; perhaps related to Danish dialectal rag "grudge." Related: Ragged; ragging. Cf. bullyrag, ballarag "intimidate" (1807).

Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper

Idioms and Phrases with rags


In addition to the idiom beginning with rag

also see:

The American Heritage® Idioms Dictionary Copyright © 2002, 2001, 1995 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.