The Language Of Golf

By Chandra Orr

October 19, 2012 5 min read

It's long been common etiquette to warn others on the links of errant balls by yelling "fore." But why? As with many of historic mysteries, the answer isn't quite clear.

Some say the term takes a cue from ship terminology. Seafaring sorts refer to the front and back of the ship as the "fore" and "aft," respectively. It's possible that golfers yell "fore" to warn those in front of wayward balls.

Others claim the quintessential exclamation has military origins. In Scotland, golf rose to popularity in the late 16th century, a time when the army relied heavily on cannons. Infantrymen typically marched ahead of the cannons to warn the men of incoming artillery. Shooters would yell, "Beware before." According to the United States Golf Association Museum, golf's signature shout is a shortened version of this once-common cry.

Still others, like the British Golf Museum, suggest the term harkens back to the game's early days, when forecaddies were common members of the golf party. Tasked with running ahead of the golfers to mark where balls had landed, forecaddies would yell "fore" to warn others of incoming players.

What of golf's other unusual terms? They, too, have their roots in history:

*Mulligan

This popular and pithy term for a do-over is most widely credited to David Mulligan, a 1920s hotelier and avid golfer. Several versions of the story exist, but most hold that, in an impulsive, if not frazzled moment on the links with friends, Mulligan hit a poor shot, promptly re-teed and hit again. His friends dubbed this corrective shot a Mulligan, and the name stuck.

*Bogey

It means one over par, but bogey originally referred to a type of competition. First played in the late 1800s, the method involved golfers scoring in a match -- on holes won, lost or halved -- against a base score set in advance. This base score became, in essence, a mythical opponent, or "Bogey Man."

From this, bogey became the score that an adept amateur should reach, while par was the professional standard. On some holes, bogey was just one above par, which led to the modern usage of the term.

*Birdie, eagle and albatross

In use since 1910, birdie means one under par. The term is likely American in origin, culled from the phrase, "A bird of a shot." In the slang of the time, bird referred to something wonderful, excellent or top-notch.

The terms "eagle" and "albatross" are simply extensions of the theme. The size and rarity of the bird increases with a better score. Eagle means two under par, while albatross means three under par.

*Fairway

That impeccable expanse of grass between the tee and putting green takes its name from a nautical term. First seen in the 1580s in mariner's parlance, a fairway is simply a navigable channel of water. The term was applied to playing areas on the course in the early 1900s.

*Caddie

Those who carry the clubs across the course likely got their name from "cadet," which is French for youngest. Historically, the youngest son of the family would join the military, so the word became associated with entry-level soldiers. While French in origin, most European languages adopted the term.

By the 18th century, messengers and odd-job men, many of whom had been in the army, were known as caddies, and the name made its way to the links.

*Golf

And the name of the game itself? No, golf is not an acronym for "gentlemen only, ladies forbidden." Rather, it's a derivation on the old Scottish term for the game: Goff, gowf, golf, goif, gof, gowfe, gouff and golve all appear in old documents. There were no dictionaries at the time, and with no standardized spelling, terms were written phonetically -- hence the many variations.

The Dutch played a stick-and-ball game on the frozen canals in the winter called "kolf" or "kolve," meaning "club," and they had a bustling trade industry with Scotland up to the 17th century. According to the USGA Museum, it's most likely that the Scottish adapted this game to the rolling inlands of Scotland, and the name carried on.

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