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GOLF - Meaning of the word Golf

Updated: Oct 26, 2023

A common misconception is that the word GOLF is an acronym for Gentlemen Only Ladies Forbidden. This is a 20th century joke and definitely not true.It is now generally accepted that the "golf" is derived from an ancient word meaning "club", although this in turn may have older related roots going back to ancient times. The first recorded mention of the word "golf" is in Edinburgh on March 6, 1457, when King James II banned "ye golf" to encourage neglected archery.

1457 Golf ordanyt
1457 Item it is ordanyt and decretyt that ye futbawe and ye golf be uterly cryt done and not usyt. (It is ordained and decreed that football and golf be uterly cryt done and not practised).

The royal ban on golf was repeated in 1471 by James III, son of James II, and in 1491 by James IV, his grandson. These prohibitions may not have referred to links golf as we know it, but to a target variety played in the streets of towns or in churchyards. Golf on the links may have continued unabated.

Between the above enactments there were two references to the word 'golf' in a translation of a French poem by Sir Gilbert Hay c.1460 The original text has been lost, and the oldest surviving version containing the words has been dated to c.1554. Overall, however, it is more likely that the "golf" examples date from 1460, and the full details are discussed here.

Before the creation of dictionaries, there was no standardised spelling for a word. People wrote phonetically. Goff, gowf, golf, goif, goiff, gof, gowfe, gouff and golve have all been found in Scottish documents.

The first recorded mention is spelled as "golf", but most people believe that the old word "gowfe" was the most common term, pronounced "gouf". In any case, the word "gouf" is found frequently in written texts long after "golf" was the recognised game. Allan Ramsay referred to "gouff" in his 1711 elegy to Maggy Johnston. Dr John Rattray , the winner of the Silver Club at Leith in 1744, 1745 and 1751, refers to "gouffers" in a letter of 1752. The Loudoun Gowf Club maintains the tradition of this terminology. In Gaelic the word is 'goilf' and a golf course is 'raon goilf' or 'cùrsa goilf'.

Some claim that 'golf' is a purely Scottish term, derived from the Scots words 'golf', 'golfand' and 'golfing', meaning 'to strike' as in 'to cuff' or 'to propel by force'. This view may be based on the possible derivation of the words in question from the ancient Greek word κολάφος (kolaphos) meaning 'to strike with the fist', for which there are obvious related connexions through the Latin terms 'colaphus' and 'colapus'.

The verb 'to golf' is recorded in dictionaries from the 18th century onwards.

The terms golf, colf, kolf and chole were the names for a variety of mediaeval stick and ball games in Britain and continental Europe. They are generally thought to be derived from a term in a pre-modern European language, following Grimm's Grammatical Law, which shows the clear phonetic similarities between these words. It is believed that golf, colf, kolf and chole originally meant "club" and are related to the Middle High German word for club, "kolbe", (Der Kolben) and the Dutch word "kolven" for the modern game of golf. History in the Rules of Thistle Golf Club documents this origin as early as 1824.

It is important to note that the word "golf" is never used in Europe to describe any of the games there, and the word "colf" is never used in Scotland to describe golf. Many historians use the word golf to describe games played on the continent when it is clearly a different game or when we do not know what game was played. Only Scotland had the right combination of club, ball and links to create golf.

In 1636, David Wedderburn, a Latin master in Aberdeen, used the word "Baculus", which is Latin for "club", as the title for his "Vocabula", which lists Latin terms for golf, supporting this derivation. The Vocabula provides us with the first definite mention of the golf course in Scotland.

 Aberdden Queens Links. Meaning of Golf.
Aberdeen Queens Links - site of the first golf hole in Scotland- with Broad Hill on the left.

Most golf clubs were made in the 16th and 17th centuries by bowers (bow makers) whose skills made them ideal for the job. The names of very few of them have come down to us. Recently, two other 17th century bat makers have been found. By the late 18th century the making of bats had become a skill in its own right and bat makers such as James McEwan at Bruntsfield were earning a good income.The social 'club' apparently developed from the same derivation in the verbal sense 'to assemble in a club-like mass', noted in the 1620s, then later in the 1640s as a noun, an 'association of people'.The immediate derivation of golf, the game, the device, and the golfing society are all from the same etymological origin, meaning club.

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