The smoke furled dreamily from its navy blue nostrils and wafted gently into the evening, almost indistinguishable from the exhaust fumes of the cars below it.

I'm unsure what the meaning of furl is in the sentence above, which is quoted from Three Times Table by Sara Maitland.

Merriam Webster's definition of furl:

  • transitive verb : to wrap or roll (as a sail or a flag) close to or around something
  • intransitive verb : to curl or fold as in being furled

Can anybody explain which of the Merriam Webster definitions better fits Sara Maitland's usage?

  • What if Sara Maitland just made up the word, and didn't look in the dictionary?
    – Kaz
    Apr 6, 2013 at 3:29
  • Check out the poem Jabberwocky by Lewis Carrol. The poem is a specimen of English literature and has a meaning, yet it contains many words that do not appear anywhere in the dictionary (and whose origin, if they are used anywhere else, can be traced to Jabberwocky).
    – Kaz
    Apr 6, 2013 at 3:32
  • 1
    For instance, the word chortled appears in Jabberwocky. That's a word now. But it first appeared in that poem. Today you can chortle. Similarly Sara Maitland's meaning does not depend on whether or not an intransitive usage of furled is in a dictionary, or whether it exists at all.
    – Kaz
    Apr 6, 2013 at 3:37

1 Answer 1


This is definitely an intransitive usage—there is no object.

The picture I imagine is that smoke is rising, curling like a ribbon waving gently in a breeze.

  • 1
    To elaborate on the imagery a bit, the smoke probably starts by coming out in a fairly straight, thin stream, but quickly starts to become wavy and then curly as it loses speed; after a very short distance it is moving quite slowly ('wafting') in a mass which still exhibits some remnants of the original stream-like appearance; you could call it a cloud at this point, but you can still pick out "ribbons" folded around and wadded up within the cloud.
    – Hellion
    Apr 5, 2013 at 22:17
  • @Hellion & Barbara, don't you note something strange in 'furled from'? Assuming that furl=fold, how can the smoke 'fold from' its nostrils? Maybe then could it be 'fold upon', not from.
    – user114
    Apr 5, 2013 at 22:23
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    The usage of 'furled' in general is pretty rare, so it's probably intended as a poetic, evocative expression rather than as a strictly literal description. (Ordinarily, as the definition implies, I'd only expect 'furl' to be applied to a flag, banner, or other large displayed fabric.)
    – Hellion
    Apr 5, 2013 at 22:28
  • 6
    @Carlo_R Think of it as curling rather than folding; and then take a look at these images of smoke furling away from a stick of incense. Apr 5, 2013 at 22:41

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