Golf - Meaning of Word Golf

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 old word meaning 'club', though this in turn may have older cognate roots dating back to ancient times. 

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 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 c 1460. The original text is lost and the oldest extant version with the words in it has been dated to c 1554.  On balance, however, 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'. 

Some claim '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'. This view may be based on the possible derivation of the relevant words to the ancient Greek word κολάφος (kolaphos) meaning to 'strike with he fist', for which there are obvious cognate links through the Latin terms 'colaphus' and 'colapus'. 

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 commonly believed to be derived from a pre-modern European language term, 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 when we do not know what game was being 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', listing Latin terms for golf, which supports this derivation. The Vocabula gives us the first unambiguous mention of the golf hole in Scotland.


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

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".

The immediate derivation of golf, the game, the implement and the golfing society are all from the same etymological origin, meaning club.