Golf - Meaning of Word Golf

A common misconception is that the word GOLF is an acronym for Gentlemen Only Ladies Forbidden. This is definitely not true.

It is now accepted that the 'golf' is derived from an old word meaning 'club'.

The first documented mention of the word 'golf' is in Edinburgh on 6th March 1457, when King James II banned 'ye golf', in an attempt to encourage archery practice, which was being neglected.

1457 Statute golf

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 utterly condemned and not practised)

The royal ban on golf was repeated in 1471 by James III, son of James IV and again in 1491 by James IV, his grandson. This may not have been links golf as we know it today but a target variant played in city streets or churchyards. Golf on the links may have continued unabated.

In between the above edicts were two references to the word 'golf' in a translation of a French poem by Sir Gilbert Hay in c1460. One of these references was known previously but the other has only just been noticed. The original text is lost and the oldest extant version with the words in it has been dated to c1554, which would still make it very old.  On balance it more likely that the 'golf' examples date to 1460 and the full details are discussed here.

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

Most people believe the old word 'gowfe' was the most common term, pronounced 'gouf'. Certainly the word 'gouf' is found extensively in written texts, long after golf was the acknowledged game. Dr John Rattray, the winner of the Silver Club at Leith in 1744, 1745 and 1751, refers to the 'Gouffers' in a letter in 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'. 

A minority of people hold the view that golf is a purely Scottish term, derived from Scots words 'golf', 'golfand' and 'golfing', which mean 'to strike' as in 'to cuff' or 'to drive forward with violence'. It did not become a verb until much later. The verb 'to golf' is recorded in dictionaries in the 18th century onwards.

The terms golf, colf, kolf and chole which were the names for a variety of medieval 'stick and ball' games in Britain and in continental Europe. They are all clearly derived from a common word in a pre-modern European language, following Grimm's grammatical law that details the clear phonetic similarities of these words.

Golf, colf, kolf and chole are all presumed to have originally meant 'club' and are associated with the Middle High German word for club, 'kolbe', (Der Kolben), and the Dutch word 'kolven' for the game of modern kolf. The history in the Rules of Thistle Golf Club documented this origin as far back 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 they are clearly a different game or we do not know what game was being played. Care needs to be taken.

In 1636, David Wedderburn, a Latin master in Aberdeen, used the word 'Baculus', which is Latin for 'club' as the title for his 'Vocabula', listing Latin terms for golf, which supports this derivation. The Vocabula gives us the first unambiguous mention of the golf hole in Scotland.

AberdeenQueensLinks

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

 The social 'club' apparently evolved from the same derivation in a verbal sense " to gather in a club-like mass", noted in 1620s, then later in 1640s as a noun, as an"association of people".

So golf, the game, the implement and the golfing society are all derived from the same etymological origin, meaning club.