Dear Word Detective: I am curious about how the game of “curling” got its name. I had assumed that the term “curl” comes from the motion of the stone after the throw, curling away from a straight line as it moves down the ice. However, Wikipedia says “curl” is actually the sound made by the rock as it slides on the ice: “The word derives from from the Scots language verb ‘curr’ which describes a low rumble (a cognate of the English language verb ‘purr’).” — Andrea Denison.
Oh boy, Wikipedia strikes again. Don’t get me wrong; I love Wikipedia. Did you know, for instance, that you can look up TV schedules by year on Wikipedia and see listings for shows that you watched as a kid but have completely forgotten? Anybody remember “Circus Boy”? It ran on NBC on Sunday nights in 1956. Great show, kinda like “Lassie,” but with chimpanzees. And it turns out that Circus Boy himself was played by Mickey Dolenz, later of The Monkees.
Onward. “Curling,” for the uninitiated, is a sport that involves sliding a heavy stone across ice so that it ends up in a certain position. It’s been described as “chess on ice,” although “arctic shuffleboard” might be closer. Curling is especially popular in Scotland, where it has been played since the 16th century.
Unfortunately, relying on Wikipedia for anything that really matters is like setting out on a long road trip in a 1956 Ford. You may get there, but it’s far from a sure thing. Wikipedia is especially dicey, in my experience, when it comes to word and phrase origins. The people who create entries seem weirdly fond of announcing a term’s etymology with absolute certainty without giving any supporting evidence whatsoever. The entry for “curling” is a good example, offering no scholarly reference to back up their Scots “curr” origin, an omission so glaring that a subsequent contributor added a “citation needed” note to that spot in the text. I’ll have to remember to check back in a week or two, because I have no idea of where the author got that theory. That is not to say that “curling” cannot possibly owe something to that Scots word, which definitely exists, just that there is another explanation accepted by etymologists.
The name “curling” for the sport is, as you assumed, simply a reference to the curve of the stone’s course across the ice. In modern curling, two team members actually accompany the stone on its trip, furiously brushing the ice ahead of it with brooms to smooth the ice and keep the stone on as straight a course as possible. That the sport originated in Scotland and that the Scots “curr” means “rumble” may have contributed to the popular appeal of the name “curling,” but it’s definitely the same sort of “curl” one does to one’s hair.
Incidentally, the English word “curl” started out as the Middle Dutch “krul,” meaning “twisted.” Somewhere along the line, the “r” and the “u” were switched by a fairly common linguistic process called “metathesis.” In the end, we got “curl,” but the original form lives on in that delight of the doughnut world, the cruller.