The Prologue of Martin Dugard and Bill O'Reilly's new book (Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination that Changed America Forever) begins like this:
The man with six weeks to live is anxious.
He furls his brow, as he does countless times each day, and walks out of the Capitol Building, which is nearing completion. He is exhausted, almost numb.
Justin Elliott in Salon ("Ford’s Theatre flunks O’Reilly’s Lincoln book", 11/12/2011), reproduces in full a review by Rae Emerson, a deputy superintendent at the Ford's Theatre national historic site, who "has recommended that Bill O’Reilly’s bestselling new book about the Lincoln assassination not be sold at the historic site 'because of the lack of documentation and the factual errors within the publication.'" The first complaint in Ms. Emerson's review is about Lincoln furling his brow:
“He furls his brow . . . .” furl – nautical term to compact, roll up; furrows – narrow grove, depression on any surface, i.e., furrows of a wrinkled face
The rest of her criticisms are all about matters of historical fact.
Coby Lubliner, who brought the issue to my attention, wrote:
I don't agree that furl is strictly nautical (it's applied to umbrellas, after all), but its occurrence as a malapropism (I don't know what else to call it, and it's probably limited to the rhotic domain) for furrow is news to me. And yet it was passed by copy editors at a house as prestigious as Henry Holt. What do you think?
I was also taken aback by this usage, and since Ms. Emerson, Coby and I were all brought up short, maybe it would have been better to not to use it to start the book with. But it certainly doesn't belong in a list of historical errors, and after some investigation, I'm not sure that it belongs in a list of errors at all.
The OED gives several transitive senses for the verb furl. The main modern one is "To roll up and bind (a sail) neatly upon its respective yard or boom", or "to roll or gather up (a flag) into small compass", along with various transf. and fig. extensions, in which the things furled are umbrellas, wings, bed-curtains, tents, fans, hopes of reward, and so on. Similarly, Merriam-Webster gives the gloss "to wrap or roll (as a sail or a flag) close to or around something"; and the Random House Dictionary gives "to gather into a compact roll and bind securely, as a sail against a spar or a flag against its staff".
The OED also gives a "now rare" sense, glossed as "To swathe or envelope in or with something twisted or folded", and three senses cited as "obsolete", of which the last is the one that Dugard and O'Reilly open with:
To twist or curl (hair)
Of a lion: To ruffle (its mane)
To make undulations on (a surface); to furrow, wrinkle
But is this last sense really obsolete? It's certainly rare — there's just one example of brow-furling in the Corpus of Contemporary American English, from a 2007 New York Times story by Adam Nagourney ("Iowans Check for Dirt Under Giuliani's Fingernails"):
"Have I ever worked on a farm? " Mr. Giuliani responded. He paused and furled his brow. " No," he said, smiling. I mean, I've visited a farm. But you know there are no farms in New York City. "'
There are no examples in the British National Corpus, but Google Books turns up about 180 examples of "furl|furling|furls|furled his|her brow", most from recent publications:
Turgell had furled her brow and was staring at him, obviously intent on hearing the rest of the story.
Ashton wanted to call out Chuck's name, but instead he furled his brow and waited.
[T]he Irish-born commander of the Mounted Police's D Division furled his brow at the news.
He furls his brow and scowls. Is he rejecting me?
He furls his brow, trying to understand.
Someone in the back row is furling his brow in studied concentration.
"Why would you even ask that?” he asked, furling his brow.
(Of these, 123 involve "his brow" and 57 "her brow".)
So it's clear that furling of brows is rare at best. And the metaphor strikes me as a bit bizarre, since you furl sails, umbrellas, and flags in order to put them away neatly (and smoothly!) for future use, which is not at all what the forehead-wrinkling in question is all about, either in form or in function.
But still, it's equally clear that a not-entirely-trivial number of other recent writers and editors think that it's OK to refer to wrinkling one's forehead as furling one's brow. And here in the land of the free and the home of the brave, if Dugard and O'Reilly want to risk the ridicule of their fellow English speakers by starting the second sentence their book with "he furls his brow", that's their right.
Update — I should have checked the Eggcorn Database to start with. Ben Zimmer entered "furled one's brow, furled brow" back in 2005:
The verb _furrow_ ‘to crease’ is seldom used beyond the set phrase _furrow one’s brow_, and the original allusion to trenches in plowed fields has largely faded from the collective memory. _Furl_ ‘to roll up’ is similarly uncommon (its opposite, _unfurl_, appears with much greater frequency, though almost always in reference to flags or sails). Apparently, the rolling/curling/folding connotation of _furl_ supplies enough semantic justification for the term to be applied to wrinkled brows.
The _Oxford English Dictionary_ lists a sense of _furl_ meaning ‘to furrow,’ but it’s marked obsolete, with citations coming from the 17th-18th centuries
It's certainly plausible to see this usage of furl as one of those extreme-minority lexical variants that we can simply flag as a mistake. But I'm not prepared to grant all aspects of Ben's argument without some checking. Versions of furrow (the noun as well as the verb) have a frequency of about 3.16 per million in the COCA corpus, and a quick search of a random selection suggests that about a third of these involves non-brow furrows. On the other hand, it's clear from a historical search of the Google Books corpus that the frequency has fallen considerably since the early 20th century:
And the frequency of forms of furl is much lower — about 0.24 per million in COCA, with this profile in the Google Books corpus:
So it's plausible that there are people who are unfamiliar enough with furl to mistake it for furrow in this context. And I was only able to find two instances of brow-furling in Google Books before 1910. One was the OED's citation, from William Shenstone's 1783 poem The Charms of Precedence:
O Celia, gentle Celia! tell us,
You who are neither vain nor jealous!
The softest breast, the mildest mien!
Would you not feel some little spleen,
Nor bite your lip nor furl your brow,
If Florimel, your equal now,
Should, one day, gain precedence of ye?
First serv'd—though in a dish of coffee?
Plac'd first, although, when you are sound,
You gain the eyes of all around?
Nam'd first, though not with half the fame,
That waits my charming Celia's name ?
The only other example was in James Beresford's 1824 The Cross, and the crescent; an heroic metrical romance partially founded on madame Cottin's 'Mathilde', a work in which I would not be surprised to see all sorts of lexical oddities:
"What means the Tyrant?" Thus, with furled brow,
And ulcerated heart, he murmur'd low:—
"Call back the word ?—Slander mine own true tongue
With charge of slander, for a touch of blame
On Hadel, sold to love!—And love for whom?
Yon crafty Witch, whose hate, pursuing hard
Our Cause,.. our Creed,.. our Prophet,.. and our Name,
Still storms them with a battery of pray'rs.—
So!—The pure quintessence of all my crime
Lies here that I have shewn the spectacle
Of Hadel,.. whining for a Christian Maid !— "
So maybe brow-furling has been an eggcorn (or perhaps just a malapropism?) from the start, rare enough that it has never been appropriate to consider it as a reasonable variant collocation.