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kerb or curb?

December 5, 2018

Most people only know one novel by Stella Gibbons, the brilliant Cold Comfort Farm. But I’m reading her novel Westwood, written in 1946 and set in wartime London, now re-published by Vintage, and it’s also brilliant. I was brought up short, however, by a line on page 88 that went ‘she cried out and stumbled as she missed the curb’.

She missed the what?

EDITOR AT VINTAGE: Er… the curb.

But don’t you mean kerb?

EDITOR AT VINTAGE: Well, er, I suppose you can spell it like that…

You’re not American, are you? And neither was Stella Gibbons.

EDITOR AT VINTAGE: I’m sorry, I made a mistake…

Too right you did. In British English there is a difference between kerb and curb, the former being the edge of the pavement and the latter being a verb meaning to restrain. In American English they are both spelt the same. But I like our homegrown kerb, which has an unusual letter combination and is a great word to play in Scrabble.

While I’m on this subject I’m reminded of a couplet by Roy Campbell ‘On Certain South African novelists’. I have no idea which novelists he was referring to but it has always stuck in my mind: ‘You praise the firm restraint with which they write/ I’m with you there of course./ They use the snaffle and the curb all right/ But where’s the bloody horse?’

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One Comment
  1. Simon Carter permalink

    A quick check reveals that a curb was originally a strap passing under a horses mouth so Curb your Enthusiasm means the same as “rein in”. The spelling kerb first appeared in 1664 (appropriately for Kronenbourg) as the framing around a brewers copper. Curb meaning the edge of the pavement first appeared in 1836 (having previously been spelt Kirb) and as kerb in 1861. It would seem to be another instance in which Americans have retained an older usage.

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