Words in the News


Liz Potter
Written by Liz Potter

My eye was caught this week by a headline in The Guardian:

British men left to rue disastrous ninth end as Swiss curlers advance

There is quite a bit to unpack here. The story concerns the sport of curling, which tends to emerge into the limelight every four years during the Winter Olympics, only to sink back into relative obscurity except in the communities where it is regularly played (chiefly Scotland and Canada, but also many other countries in Europe and beyond). So a curler here is not something you put in hair to make it curl but someone who practises the sport of curling, in which large, round, flat stones are slid across the ice, with players using brooms to sweep the surface of the ice in order to control the stone’s speed and direction.

A curling match consists of a series of ends, an end being a session of play in one direction. The team captain is known as the skip, short for skipper, and skip also functions as a verb, as in: She skipped the team to a bronze medal. The heavy stones, also called rocks, are made of granite extracted from two places, the island of Ailsa Craig in Scotland and the Welsh village of Trefor. The ice is called the curling sheet and the aim of the game is to get your own stones close to the centre of the house, a circular target, while preventing your opponents from doing so. There is a lot more technical detail and specialist terminology which there is no space to go into here.

The British men were in the lead in the play-off for a place in the semifinals until the Swiss skip played a blinder in the ninth end and won the match. Britain’s women had better luck, securing a place in the semifinal by defeating the favourites, Canada.

This use of the verb curl is first attested in a 17th century Scottish text and refers to the movement of the stones over the ice. Curl entered Middle English from the Middle Dutch ‘krul’. References to the sport go back to the early 16th century and it is depicted in two mid-century paintings by the great Flemish painter Peter Bruegel the Elder.

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Liz Potter

Liz Potter

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