: to release from a furled state

: to open out from or as if from a furled state : UNFOLD


Unfurl is such a fascinating word. I thought about showcasing an unfurling UN flag in honor of Nikki’s initial inspiration for this project. When I searched for visual inspiration, I kept seeing the same images of flora (fiddlehead ferns?) unfurling. Personally, I didn’t remember seen any of my plants unfurl. Then I remembered drinking tea where the flower blossoms in hot water. This is the kind of unfurling I could relate to!

Note: This project continues a very special series. The letters T-Y have been adopted by newsletter readers (you can read more about the why and how here). Nikki Halpern, an intrepid Creative Quester, selected the word “unfurl” as her project. I know you’ll find her take below on Alpha Projects as delightful as I do!


Inspo, featuring:

  • Plant tendrils, green shoots, opening the way a spiral staircase leads up, tender (probably colored by “tendrils”).
  • The concrete word, un-furl, the letter “U” as headliner for “unhappy,” “unlucky,” and such, but the letter U is a smile; the proverbial frown turned upside down. The upside of down.
  • The classic British umbrella – the uptight brolly – unfurls. Opens a protective dome in and as the sky, and somehow that big space it delimits, the tent, surges out of a Busby Berkeley-choreographed revolving.
  • The revolving, the movement, brought me finally to the spiral, for me the fundamental shape of things and of things to come. The spiral of life as fundamental shape and shaping. Hence fiddlehead ferns. About which, even the name is dynamic.
  • Across dictionaries, one aspect of a definition specifies that to unfurl is to be spread out or expanded, open to the wind. Open to the wind—seems the opposite of the gentle movement I envision, demanding strength, suggesting opposition, a staunch stance. “Open to the wind” was otherwise inspiring. And conjured up the adjectival  periphrasis “three sheets to the wind,” for someone in a state of inebriation, aka drunk. Which, wonderfully, turns out to be germane. I figured the sheets were masts, sails (remember, they unfurl in the wind, open to the wind?). Yet against all odds it turns out that the sheets are ropes or chains holding the sail’s lower corners. Because if the rope or chain is not taut, neither is the sail, and the boat is tossed about on the waves—like a staggering drunk (in the drink!). 
  • Researching the etymology is a slow reveal, an unwinding, and a fireworks display, because it’s with the etymological research that things got popping. Unfurl, from the 1640s, is composed of “furl” and “un;” “un” as in the opposite, the not. “Furl” is attested a hundred years earlier, and – surprise! – it’s of uncertain origin. The hypotheses are entrancing, hypnotic (from etymonline.com):

1550s, of uncertain origin, possibly from French ferler "to furl," from Old French ferliier "chain, tie up, lock away," perhaps from fer "firm" (from Latin firmus; from [Proto-Indo-European] root dher– "to hold firmly, support") + -lier "to bind" (from Latin ligare; from [Proto-Indo-European] root leig– "to tie, bind"). Also said to be a shortening of earlier furdle "to furl or fold."

Can you dig this? The Proto Indo-European root gives us the Sanskrit dharma, custom, statute, law, teaching...

Dharmas are the components of existence, constitutive of our experience of reality. Dharmas are not individual, separate, rather always in interaction. “constantly coming into being and vanishing, always in flux” says some website I consulted. And if that isn’t the ultimate and most fundamental unfurl I don’t know what is.


The UN of furling grabbed me for awhile. I thought of the word “unfurl” in various languages, unfurling in their respective national flags,(because flags and banners and standards unfurl), or opening like umbrellas. But that seemed like a lot of popsicle sticks or the little parachutist toys I don’t see everywhere anymore. Designing a set as in the hemicycle of desks at the United Nations, each with its flag, and the word “unfurl” in different languages. But that was well beyond my timeframe and skillset.

What this track did propel me to do was to find “unfurl” in other languages–not many, no exhaustive search. And so in no particular order, in particularly no order I suggest the UN of furl:

🇬🇧  and since 1776, one way or another, 🇺🇸 : unfurl (English)

🇸🇳  dawal (Wolof)

🇨🇳  展開 (Traditional Chinese)

🇩🇪  entfalten (German) – which was my first guess for etymology but clearly not. Anglo-Saxon was my fall-back. Did Beowulf unfurl a banner as he went into battle?

🇩🇰  udfolde (Danish) – actually getting warmer here

🇫🇷  well hmm. If, like me, you’d think the French is déferler, yes and no. Yes for sails, for masts, as a transitive verb particularly in the nautical mode. But when the call goes out for an intransitive verb, to spread violently or hastily, to come crashing in (“breaking like the waves at Malibu” – Joni Mitchell), then no, it’s déployer that steps up.

Time-lapse photography suggested itself to me to translate the gentle movement the word conjures up for me. But I had a time-lapse myself and could not acquire this skill on demand, or on any schedule in the known universe. Which brought me to the world of the .gif (graphics interchange format). Alpha Quest propelled me into image-making, I have learned to cook up artisanal .gifs, I hardly recognize my iconoclastic self. And hope I won’t be struck by a thunderbolt for practicing idolatry.

Unfurl” – in which tenor and vehicle reiterate without repeating:

The word "unfurl" unfurling as a gif

Here’s another moment in the relationship of tenor and vehicle, a kind of ekphrastic concatenation (with thanks to finedictionary.com for the fascinating idea of including “Typos” with definitions, to the Glitch Text Generator, and to Abraham Lincoln). The image is the product of typing each letter to form the word unfurl, so it is « unfurl » saying its name, painting its own portrait, from letters to literal cluster, then to the phrase the movement of unfurling inspired in me, a re-wording of Abraham Lincoln, revealing what was hitherto hidden in Lincoln's thought. A kind of sonogram results, the verb in action.

Image showing the different typos for unfurl

What’s more, in Unfurl: The Musical, this will be the score for the letter “U,” in its headliner role in unfurl, played on a glass instrument.

Claudel statue rotating gif

In Camille Claudel’s “La Valse” (« The Waltz »), cast in various materials, the drapery added in a later stage, to answer charges of immodesty, only accentuates (of course) the movement and the erotic. A dynamic sculpture, a moving statue. If ever two were furdling and unfurdling, it is this pair.


The slow and graceful revolutions, the turning round and round reversing opening revealing coming into fullness, display, disclosure, all suggest moving toward something positive. But the flags, banners and standards that unfurl seem more martial, displays of power, declarations of war. “Unfurl” is an imperative, coming to be what you are not, being not what you are to become you.


Editor’s note: While the “UN of furling” was a creative idea, and made for some great translations, I was happy to see the GIFs as Nikki’s final project. I’m a GIF fanatic and it made me want to do my own. I chatted with Nikki earlier in the process and appreciated her insight that we never hear about furling, only unfurling. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing Nikki’s project unfurl!


Reminder: the project and write-up was submitted by a guest contributor, Nikki Halpern.

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