While many golfing terms are now part of the everyday English language but where do the words and phrases that golfers use every day originate from, and how did they evolve? 

We all know the common words used in golf, but what about some of the lesser know terms? 

TSGer Blogger Kevin Booth investigates their definitions and origins.

‘Golf’

Definition: A game played outside on grass, whereby the player tries to hit a small ball into a series of nine or 18 holes, using a long, thin stick

Firstly, it’s not true that golf stands for “Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden”. Alas, that’s an old fashioned sexist joke, that just isn’t funny anymore! 

No, a much more likely theory ascribes the word  ‘golf’ to the Scottish term ‘goulf’ (also pronounced gowf), a verb meaning “to strike or cuff”.

This explanation would at least place the origin of the word with the people who invented the modern game as we know it. After all ‘striking or cuffing’ is an integral part of the game is, 

However, another theory says the word golf derives from the Dutch word ‘kolf’ a generic term for a stick, club, or mallet used in several games like tennis, croquet, and hockey.

Whatever the origins of the word ‘Golf’, we can tell you, that the first use of the term in written language can be traced back as early as 1425.

‘Par’

Definition: The number of strokes a first-class player should normally require for a particular hole or course.

The word “Par” originated outside of golf and according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “Par” derives from the Latin, meaning “equal” or ‘equality’.

Research suggests the phrase dates to the 16th Century but the arrival of the word “Par” in golf did not occur until late in the 19th Century.

Another theory is that the term is thought to have originated from the Stock Exchange, where it was used to describe the ‘expected’ value of Stocks and Shares.

Bogey’

Definition: One shot more than Par.

 

A bogie was a Scottish term for a devil and a Bogey man was a monster in an undefined form which spread terror and ‘would catch you if he can.

When Major Wellman failed to outplay the ground score (known as Par), he complained to Dr Browne “This player of yours is a regular bogeyman!”

The description stuck and when playing against the gross score, golfers started calling it ‘playing against Mister Bogey’.

Later in the 20th Century, bogey became known as 1 over Par.

‘Birdie’

Definition: One shot less than Par.

Birdie comes from the American slang ’bird’ which means something wonderful. The Country Club in Atlantic City lay claim to the first use of the word ‘birdie’,

In 1962 the US greenkeepers’ magazine reported a conversation with A B Smith he said that, in 1898/9, he, his brother, William P Smith, and their friend, George A Crump (who later built Pine Valley) were playing the Par 4, second hole at Atlantic City, when his second shot went within inches of the hole.

Smith said, “That was a bird of a shot” and claimed he should get double the money if he won with one under par, which was agreed.

He duly holed his putt to win with one under par and the three of them thereafter referred to such a score as a “birdie”.

However, another theory is that in 1899 in New Jersey, three golfers were playing a round, when one of them, on his second stroke, hit a bird in flight with the ball and it landed very, very close to the hole.

The playing partners said “it was a stroke of luck for a ‘birdie’”

It wasn’t long before it began to be used all over the United States and later spread to other countries. God only knows the truth but personally, I’d like to believe the latter.

‘Eagle’

Definition: Two shots less than Par.

It would be natural for American golfers to think of the eagle, which is their national symbol and the term seems to have developed only shortly after the ‘birdie’. A B Smith said that his group referred to ‘two under Par’, as an ‘eagle’.

Origins of Golf Terminology - Albatross - Three less than Par

‘Albatross’

Definition: Three shots less than Par.

Albatross is the term for three under par and is a continuation of the birdie and eagle theme but this is in fact a British term.

A B Smith said his group used the phrase ‘double eagle’ for three under, which is still the term many Americans use today.

‘FORE!’

Definition: A phrase called out as a warning to people in the path of a golf ball.

The meaning of the word “Fore!” is not absolutely certain. 

The Oxford English Dictionary records its first use in 1878, as a warning cry to people in front of a golf stroke, and many people, who believe it is an abbreviation of the word ‘before’.

The origin is almost certainly earlier, and bound up with that of the word Caddie. 

However, there is an earlier reference in 1857, in a glossary of golf terms.

Currently, there are three explanations for the origins of the term FORE!

  1. Golf balls were expensive and golfers employed “Forecaddies” to stand where the ball might land and reduce the number of lost balls, little like spotters at major tournaments today. It is probable that golfers shouted to their ‘Forecaddie!’, who would always be some distance ahead to draw attention to the fact the ball was coming and, in time, this was shortened to ‘Fore!’ Shoot over their heads!
  2. Still widely believed within the USGA, derives from the military battle craft of musket days, when rank after rank would fire fusillades, some over the heads of those in front. It was speculated that the term ‘Fore!’ might have been used to warn those in front to keep their heads down. However, many historians pour cold water on this theory, partly because there is has no Scottish  connection, and partly because the relevant military terms in use at the time, do not bear any relation. However, this theory may in fact be a misunderstanding of the alternative theory below.
  3. This one appears to sound utterly implausible but which still has a faint possibility of being true. It derives from a story told by John Knox (1505?-1572), a ‘hell-fire’ protestant reformer. He tells the tale, as only hell-fire preachers can, of someone arriving at the East Port (east gate) of Leith. This story was noticed by Dr Neilson and subsequently reported by Robert Browning in his book ‘History of Golf’ (1955) and it reads: 

“One among many comes to the East Port of Leith, where lay two great pieces of ordnance, and where their enemies were known to be, and cried to his fellows that were at the gate making defence: ‘”Ware Before!” and so fires one great piece, and thereafter the other”.

Or, the term ‘Fore!’ could be derived from an artillery term warning gunners to stand clear. This last explanation means, firstly, that the term ‘Ware Before!’ (Beware Before!) was foreshortened to Fore! (rather than Ware!) and, secondly, it must have been sufficiently well known to be used by golfers. 

Frankly, I believe the ‘Forecaddie’ explanation to be the most plausible.

‘Dormie’

Definition: Term used on Matchplay to denounce that one player can no lose a game, even if there are still holes left to play.

We know of two possible origins for the word, although most dictionaries simply list the definition of ‘dormie’ as unknown. The USGA Museum explains the term as being a derivation of the French word ‘dormir’, meaning to sleep – the theory being that since a player who is ‘dormie’ can no longer lose the match, they can now relax, or metaphorically ‘go to sleep’. 

However some attribute this use of the word to the first known women’s golfer – Mary Queen of Scots. She spent much of her childhood in France and spoke the language fluently. She is also credited by some with bringing the word ‘caddie’ from France to Scotland. 

Staying in Scotland, but with no evidence before the late 18th and early 19th century, another theory holds that it is local Scottish slang for ‘dormice’. Dormice were at home on the heaths and near the coasts where golf was played. As the dormice were extremely shy and would usually hide at the approach of golfers, it was considered a good omen to see one. 

A 1828 essay by Sir Walter Scott about a visit to Carnoustie, refers to the habit of local ‘gowfers’ who spattered their conversation with the names of small rodents during matches.

The word ‘dormy’ or ‘dormie’ is also found in use at golf clubs which have a ‘Dormy House’, but in this context it simply means somewhere for visiting golfers to sleep overnight.

‘Tee’

Definition: The small cradle (normally wooden) on which you place your ball when ‘tee-ing’ off on a new golf hole.

The word tee is derived from the Scottish Gaelic word taigh’ meaning house and is related to the ‘house’ (the coloured circles) in curling

This makes sense, as the first golf tees were within a circle of one golf club length from the last hole played. 

Nowadays, modern courses have separate, designated tee boxes for each hole.

‘Caddie’

Definition: Name given to a person who carries a golfer bag of club, and who give advice to the player during their round

The word Caddie derives from the French word ‘le cadet’, meaning ‘the boy’ or the youngest of the family. The word ‘cadet’ appears in English from 1610 and the word ‘caddie’ or ‘cadie’ shortly after that in 1634. 

The first named caddie was Andrew Dickson, who would later become a golf clubmaker and who acted as fore-caddie for the Duke of York as a boy in 1681 in the Duke’s golf match on Leith Links. In the times of ‘featherie’ golf balls, forecaddies were common as featheries were expensive.

‘Bunker’

Definition: A area on a golf course filled with sand.

Bunkers may have been inspired by the quarry pits which proliferated on many links, such as Aberdeen, Bruntsfield and Gullane. The definition of the word bunker itself is variously ascribed to the 16th-century Scots word ‘bonkar’, meaning a chest. 

The word ‘Bunker’ in golf does not appear until the 1812 Royal & Ancient rules of golf.

All in all it’s very interesting researching these origins of words used in golf, something that I’d recommend to anyone interested in knowing more about the game.

Happy Golfing!

By Kevin Booth