Could Lincoln have furled his brow?

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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.


  1. Eric TF Bat said,

    November 13, 2011 @ 8:14 am

    Personally, I'd've gone with "frowned", but I've never written a book about anyone, not even a historically inaccurate one.

  2. Ben Zimmer said,

    November 13, 2011 @ 9:36 am

    (See also the Eggcorn Database entry, as well as other eggcorns in the l-vocalization category, such as wheel barrel.)

  3. Eric P Smith said,

    November 13, 2011 @ 9:53 am

    The information that Mark gives suggest to me that to furl meaning “to make undulations on (a surface); to furrow, wrinkle” became obsolete and may be starting to make a comeback. But it seems likely to me (with no evidence except the evidence of my own ears) that any such comeback started as a confusion between furl and furrow.

    In some dialects of English, and in particular in the West Country dialects of South West England, there may be very little difference between a final /l/ and /ɔː/. As Wikipedia says in West Country Dialects,

    Hence the old joke about the three Bristolian sisters Evil, Idle and Normal – i.e.: Eva, Ida, and Norma. The name Bristol itself (originally Bridgestowe or Bristow) is believed to have originated from this local pronunciation.

    Until the old usage of furl meaning 'furrow' becomes re-established, I think we are entitled to regard its occasional use meaning 'furrow' as an egg-corn.

    (And thanks, Ben: I only saw your comment after I had written mine.)

  4. Dick Margulis said,

    November 13, 2011 @ 10:18 am

    Prestigious commercial publishers are under a lot of pressure from their corporate overlords to cut production costs and trade on their names rather than on their product quality. So it may be that the book was assigned to a less-experienced or less-knowledgeable copyeditor than one might have hoped.

    However, it is also the case that in the interaction between the editorial department and an author with a strong personality, there comes a point where one chooses one's battles. If Mr. O'Reilly insisted on stetting furl over the copyeditor's objection, the result would be the same as if the copyeditor missed it. The same can be said for the historical inaccuracies.

    Ultimately, it is the author's name on the cover, and it is the author's responsibility to approve correct text for publication. If the author is a ass, then the author is a ass, and there's not much to be done about it. <legal disclaimer>Note that the previous sentence is written intentionally in the conditional mood; I have no personal knowledge of whether the author behaved like an ass in this instance or is one in general.</legal disclaimer>

  5. Isaac said,

    November 13, 2011 @ 10:49 am

    I'm no nautical expert, by my understanding was that sails are generally furled by folding them in pleats, not rolling them up.

    [(myl) For what little it's worth, I was taught that "folding in pleats" would result in wrinkles at best, and at worst would weaken a sail's fibers by pressing them into sharp bends, so that in fact something more like "rolling them up" is the right way to furl sails.]

    As such it is a perfectly natural metaphor in my own idiolect, furling one's brow means folding the skin of the forehead in pleats, just as one would furl a sail or furl a fan.

    I'm also a bit suprised that a theater wouldn't be more familiar with the usage established in Gilbert and Sullivan's HMS Pinafore:

    A British tar is a soaring soul,
    As free as a mountain bird,
    His energetic fist should be ready to resist
    A dictatorial word.
    His nose should pant
    and his lip should curl,
    His cheeks should flame
    and his brow should furl,
    His bosom should heave
    and his heart should glow,
    And his fist be ever ready
    for a knock-down blow.

    [(myl) Good one! My search for pre-1910 brow-furling missed this, though I should have remembered it anyhow. It's famous enough to influence generations of subsequent brow-furlers — perhaps Bill O'Reilly is a fan.]

  6. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 13, 2011 @ 10:50 am

    I'd expect "furrows his brow" to mean "raises his eyebrows", creating or deepening parallel horizontal lines in the forehead. "Furls his brow" is strange to me, but my best guess is that it means "lowers his eyebrows", bringing them slightly together in a frown—this contracting motion has some resemblances to furling a flag. (This motion also creates much shorter vertical "furrows".) The frown suggests concern, not surprise, so it's probably the motion the authors had in mind to typify Lincoln's mood at that point.

    I wonder whether the people who use "furl" in this sense are making such a distinction.

    @Dick Margulies: Of course, the publishers have the right to refuse to publish a book in which the authors insisted on asininities—but are unlikely to if it looks like it will be a best-seller like Killing Lincoln, asinine or not.

  7. Alan Wachtel said,

    November 13, 2011 @ 11:25 am

    A British tar is a soaring soul, As free as a mountain bird, His energetic fist should be ready to resist A dictatorial word.

    His nose should pant and his lip should curl, His cheeks should flame and his brow should furl, His bosom should heave and his heart should glow, And his fist be ever ready for a knock-down blow.

  8. Alan Wachtel said,

    November 13, 2011 @ 11:27 am

    Let's see if this formatting works better.

    A British tar is a soaring soul,
    As free as a mountain bird,
    His energetic fist should be ready to resist
    A dictatorial word.

    His nose should pant and his lip should curl,
    His cheeks should flame and his brow should furl,
    His bosom should heave and his heart should glow,
    And his fist be ever ready for a knock-down blow.

  9. Alan Wachtel said,

    November 13, 2011 @ 11:29 am

    Oops–Isaac got there first.

  10. Alan Gunn said,

    November 13, 2011 @ 11:45 am

    Sails on large modern boats are furled by rolling them up. On older boats, they are furled by a process sometimes called flaking, which involves lowering the sail gradually and letting the bottom fall first on one side and then on the other side of the boom. I wouldn't call what you get from this "pleats," as that suggests sharp edges, but it's otherwise similar in appearance. And the result does look somewhat like what people do with their foreheads when frowning. So even if "furled his brow" is a mistake, it's the kind of mistake that makes sense, like "free reign" for "free rein."

  11. Xmun said,

    November 13, 2011 @ 12:54 pm

    So do large modern sailing boats have booms that revolve? I remember as a child in Essex in the 1950s lowering the red mainsail of a yacht (which was built like a fishing smack) and watching it furl. Sometimes, when sailing the boat in strong winds, we would reduce sail by lowering it partly, so that only the bottom part of the sail was furled.

  12. Dick Margulis said,

    November 13, 2011 @ 1:40 pm

    @Jerry Freeedman: Agreed. Commercial publishing is more about commerce, less about publishing. From the NYT obit of Morris Philipson, long of University of Chicago Press (

    "In the 1980 Times interview, Mr. Philipson described university publishing as nothing less than civilization’s keeper of the flame, the only outlet for the dense scholarship and grandest, often unwieldy works of the world’s intellectual giants. 'The commercial publisher says of his book, "This is no good, but it’ll make a lot of money," ' he said. 'The university publisher says, "This is good and it won’t make money." ’ ” [I think I got all the single and double quotes swapped correctly there. If not, sorry 'bout that.]

  13. KM Brooks said,

    November 13, 2011 @ 2:05 pm

    There is a family of characters in World of Warcraft whose surname is Furlbow, and it was the first time I'd ever seen the word 'furl' without the un- prefix. I never assumed it was being mistaken for 'furrow', though. I just assumed that a different, but similar word was being used.

  14. J Lee said,

    November 13, 2011 @ 2:06 pm

    i just saw a striking one the database omits, "world wind" for whirlwind

  15. DrSAR said,

    November 13, 2011 @ 2:09 pm

    @Xmun: Modern yachts, maybe not quite. But systems called boom-furlers used to be more common after the war and then eventually were replaced with mast-furling systems (at least in the cruising segment of the market). In those, the boom does indeed revolve (i.e. you have a crank to make it rotate – often quite a pain) Apparently, more recently in-boom furling systems are being developed. All of these result in a (partially) rolled up sail. The alternative is flaking as pointed out by Alan Gunn which you would do on most sportier/racier boats with a reefed mainsail. Whether one hurts a sail more than the other depends on all sorts of factors: material, shape etc. Furling is rarely an option if you have battens.

  16. Isaac said,

    November 13, 2011 @ 3:54 pm

    I found the following video of sails being furled on the 19th century square-rigger Joseph Conrad. It seems to involve a combination of folding and rolling, and is probably the sort of thing that W. S. Gilbert had in mind. (there is a better view of the process beginning at around the three minute mark).

  17. Valentine said,

    November 13, 2011 @ 4:01 pm

    For what it's worth, I was only previously familiar with "furl" in the phrase "furl his/her brow", which has been an idiom for me. Unfurl is a familiar verb for me, although I didn't really make the connection with furl. I am quite skilled at not making such obvious connections. I was in high school before I realized vision and television shared a morpheme.

  18. Xmun said,

    November 13, 2011 @ 6:22 pm

    Good heavens, Shenstone stressed "precedence" on the second syllable! Nice to know that Shenstone wrote verses, as well as collecting them (in Shenstone's Miscellany, of which I know only the late I. A. Gordon's edition).

  19. Joseph Bottum said,

    November 13, 2011 @ 9:00 pm

    Xmun said, "Good heavens, Shenstone stressed 'precedence' on the second syllable!"

    I winced there too, thinking it an unfortunate artifact of his need to get a stress on "of" in order to make the feminine rhyme "of ye" with "coffee."

    That stressing, however, seems to be the way Shenstone actually said the word. Further in the poem he has it again: "But women wish precedence ever; / 'Tis their whole life's supreme endeavour."

    Is that the way the word was generally said in the 18th century? Or anywhere today? Pre-CE-dence?

  20. Morten Jonsson said,

    November 13, 2011 @ 10:09 pm

    "Shenstone stressed 'precedence' on the second syllable!"

    So did Shakespeare:

    I do not like but yet, it does alay
    The good precedence, fie vpon but yet.

    —Antony and Cleopatra, 2.5

  21. David Green said,

    November 13, 2011 @ 10:46 pm

    I wouldn't take A&C as dispositive evidence about how Shakespeare pronounced "precedence"; it's suggestive, but Shakespeare treat metrics very creatively: "Oh horrible, Oh horrible, most horrible". Any attempt to scan and say that in iambic pentameter would be, well, horrible.

    [(myl) The basic rule of scansion for English-language art poetry is "no stress maximum in a weak position" (where "stress maximum" means roughly "stressed syllable in a polysyllabic word, adjacent to a less-stressed syllable in the same word", and the whole thing is interpreted so as to permit inverted initial feet). So the line you cite is perfectly regular iambic pentameter, assuming two extra-metrical syllables after the last strong position:

    w   s  w s   w   s  w s    w    s
    Oh horrible, oh horrible, most horrible

    whereas the lines involving precedence don't scan (as tetrameter) with the modern first-syllable main stress:

      w  s     w s  w     s  w s   w   s
    The good precedence, fie vpon but yet


       w    s    w    s     w s w    s
    Should, one day, gain precedence of ye?

    as Xmun, Joseph Bottum, and Morten Jonssen implied.

    (Sorry if I didn't manage to persuade WordPress to line the w's and s's up with the right syllables in all browsers…]

  22. John Kingston said,

    November 14, 2011 @ 12:53 am

    I strongly suspect that this is a perceptual confusion, arising from a convergence of three effects. First, a great many English speakers pronounce post-vocalic [l]s in a way that makes them nearly indistinguishable from [o]s or perhaps open [O]s. This isn't surprising given that pulling in the sides of the tongue to make a lateral causes its dorsum to bulge backward into the upper pharynx, more or less where [o] and [O] have their lingual constrictions. And as we know from Sproat and Fujimura's (1993) J. of Phonetics paper, laterals in this context often have no alveolar contact at all, or at best a late one. If we take these two effects together with the findings reported a few years ago by Abby Cohn and her colleagues that syllables ending in [l] following a heavy nucleus count as nearly two syllables (I think they referred to them as "sesquisyllables"), then the sources of the confusion are complete: "furl" sounds nearly the same as "furrow". I still wonder whether Dugard and O'Reilly think that plows leave furls behind in the fields.

  23. djbcjk said,

    November 14, 2011 @ 5:05 am

    Henry King's Exequy, and he wasn't treating "metrics very creatively" as David Green says of Shakespeare:

    'Tis true, with shame and grief I yield,
    Thou like the van first tookst the field,
    And gotten hath the victory
    In thus adventuring to die
    Before me, whose more years might crave
    A just precedence in the grave.

  24. Rodger C said,

    November 14, 2011 @ 9:27 am

    A lot of Latinate verbs were stressed differently in previous centuries. Right now I'm teaching Shakespeare, Marlowe and Jonson and constantly wincing at students violating the meter to get the stress "right." I keep wanting to snap, "Though thou hast now offended like a man, / Do not perSEVer in it like a devil."

  25. Craig said,

    November 14, 2011 @ 11:15 am

    @ myl:

    A minor copy-editing slipup in your own post:

    maybe it would have been better to not to use it

    If I interpret correctly, this is an artifact caused by your decision to move the "to" from one place to another but neglecting to erase the original one.
    I only bring it up because I am curious: Did you originally have the infinitive split, and then decide, "I'd better not split this infinitive — the thought of a zombie-rule-pusher correcting my 'mistake' is more nonsense than I care to deal with this morning."

    OR did you originally have the infinitive unsplit, and then think, "Am I purposely avoiding splitting this infinitive because of that ridiculous taboo? To hell with that! This infinitive's getting split, and that's all there is to it!"

    Or am I just overthinking the whole thing?

  26. Gene Callahan said,

    November 14, 2011 @ 1:51 pm

    "But you know there are no farms in New York City. "

    There is a rather large one (a full block) only a little way from my house in Brooklyn.

  27. marc said,

    November 17, 2011 @ 4:09 pm

    In a similar mistake, I recently saw "all matter of" (instead of "all manner of") in the NYT.

  28. James Iry said,

    November 17, 2011 @ 5:26 pm

    The way I learned sailing terminology was that "furling" is the act of dousing a sail. Exactly how furling is done depends on the boat, the sail, and the crew's needs. The technique that most resembles furrowing one's eyebrows, the one where the sail is folded into loose pleats, is called flaking.

    We can only hope that the next edition of Killing Lincoln will begin with "he flakes his brow, as he does countless times each day…" so that fact checkers can debate whether Honest Abe had a serious problem with eyebrow dandruff.

  29. This Week’s Language Blog Roundup | Wordnik ~ all the words said,

    November 18, 2011 @ 11:13 am

    […] about kids yesterday (and made us feel Principal Vernon old) and wondered if Lincoln could have furled his brow. Geoffrey Pullum objected to another's objections about the passive voice, and kicked himself […]

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