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.
The royal ban on golf was repeated in 1471 by James III, son of James II and again in 1491 by James IV, his grandson. These bans may not have been applied to links golf, as we know it, 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. 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.
The first documented reference is spelt 'golf', but 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. Allan Ramsay referred to 'gouff' in his Elegy to Maggy Johnston in 1711. 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.
Most golf clubs in 16th and 17th century were made by bowers (bow-makers) whose skills made them ideally suited to the job. The names of very few of them have down to us. Recently two more 17th century club makers were found. By the late 18th century, club making had become a skill in its own right and club makers such as James McEwan at Bruntsfield were making a good living.
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.