Rooey Nosbert, I’m afraid I couldn’t find anything on why your curb is spelled ‘kerb’ other than ‘it is a variant,’ which ain’t very enlightening. But the etymology of the word ‘curb’ is pretty interesting anyway and here is what I’ve learned.
There are two senses of ‘curb.’ 1) The verb ‘curb’ meaning ‘restrain’ and its related noun meaning ‘a restraint’ and 2) the noun curb/kerb meaning the street curb, border. And it is curious how the etymologies of the two are intertwined and how they probably both started out meaning the same thing – ‘curve or bend.’
1) Latin ‘curvare,’ bend, passed into Old French as ‘courber,’ ‘corber,’ which Middle English borrowed as ‘courbe,’ bend. This seems to have formed the basis of a noun ‘courbe’ or ‘corbe,’ or ‘curb’ (1477), a strap used to restrain a horse, from the earlier verb ‘courben,’ to bow down, make stop (circa 1378), the underlying meaning perhaps being that pulling on the strap ‘bent’ the horse’s neck, thereby restraining it. By 1530 this had become a verb meaning to put a ‘curb’(the strap) on a horse, or to restrain or control a horse with a ‘curb.’ And by 1588 it was being used figuratively to mean to restrain anything.
2) The sense ‘enclosing framework’ began to emerge in the early 16th century and by 1511 ‘corbe’ meant the curved border on a well from the earlier ‘curved piece of timber’(1324), which was borrowed from the Old French ‘corbe,’ courbe,’ which meant curve, curved object, curved piece of timber, iron, etc., from ‘corp,’ ‘corbe,’ the adjective meaning curved, from Latin ‘curvus,’ curved. And finally, its modern descendant is the 19th century development, the ‘pavement edge’ or ‘curb’ (1836) – and not necessarily curved anymore – which as you mention has generally been spelled ‘kerb’ in British English.
The spelling KERB first appeared in print in place of ‘curb’ in1664 to describe the framing round the top of a brewer's copper (kettle), but nobody is saying why! – perhaps the brewer was crocked when he coined the spelling. (<:). The first appearance of ‘kerb’ in the 19th century for the good old curb/kerb we know and love was actually as ‘kirb’ in 1836, and the familiar (to you, not me ) British noun ‘kerb’ appeared in 1861. The verb, meaning to furnish with a curve, appeared in print in 1887.
As an aside, when I lived in N.Y.C. many moons ago, there used to be street signs that said ‘curb your dog.’ I had always assumed that it meant that the owner should have their dog do its business in the street (go to the curb) and not on the sidewalk. But now, the enlightened me, all these years later, is not sure exactly what that sign actually meant. Did the verb ‘curb’ just mean that one should ‘restrain’ your dog on a leash? Or did the ‘curb’ mean bring your dog to the curb to do its thing, or . . . A quick internet search did reveal that ‘curb your dog’ signs still exist, and it would be interesting to know if it means the same thing today (in this pooper-scooper world) as it did in days of yore.
<1377 “I COURBED on my knees and cryed hir of grace.”—‘ The vision of William concerning Piers Plowman’ by William Langland, II. page 1>
<1477 “If he yeue him [a strong hors] not a strong bitte with a CORBE, he shal neuer con gouerne him.”—‘The Dictes or Sayenges of the Philosophres’ by Earl Rivers (Caxton), page 52>
<1530 “I COURBE a horse, I fasten the COURBE under his chynne.”—Jehan Palsgrave, page 500/1>
<1588 “Bridles to CURBE them that kicke at their lordlines.”— ‘The State of the Church of Englande, Laide Open in a Conference Betweene Diotrephes, a Byshop, Tertullus, a Papist’ (Arber, 1880) by J. Udall, page 10>
<1607 “To CURBE the will of the Nobilitie.”—‘The Tragedy of Coriolanus’ by Shakespeare, i.>
<1664 “[Elm] scarce has any superior for KERBS of coppers.”—‘Sylva, or a
Discourse of Forest-Trees’ by John Evelyn, I. iv. §15>
<1836 “These CURBS [in woodcut, marked ‘KIRB’] . . . separate the foot pavement from the road.”—‘Libr. Entert. Knowl., Pompeii’ (edition 4), I. page 91>
<1861 “In fixing the KERBS along the London footpaths.”—‘Lives of the Engineers’ by Smiles, II. page 29>
(Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology, Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, Oxford English Dictionary
Ken G – November 3, 2004
Reply from Ken Greenwald (Fort Collins, CO - U.S.A.)