The Grammarphobia Blog

When golf was banned in Scotland

Q: I cringe every time someone says “I’m going golfing” or “Did you go golfing today?” I tell them “Golf is not a verb! You don’t go tennis-ing or basketball-ing, do you?” But no one seems to care. Has the word “golf” become a verb after all this misuse?

A: We hate to disappoint you, but “golf” is indeed a legitimate verb. It’s listed as such in standard dictionaries, including The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

In fact, “golf” has been used as a verb for more than 125 years. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation is from an 1883 issue of the Standard, a now defunct London newspaper, referring to “a General Officer who golfed.”

The form “golfing,” used adjectivally, is older yet, dating at least as far back as 1805, when it appeared in the autobiography of Alexander Carlyle, a Church of Scotland minister: “We crossed the river to the golfing-ground.”

As for the noun “golf,” it’s very old, as you probably know. The oldest existing written reference to the game is from a 15th-century manuscript in which golf and football were banned in Scotland.

Here’s the OED’s first citation, from a passage in the Scottish Acts of Parliament enacted in 1457, during the reign of James II of Scotland: “And at the fut bal ande the golf be vtterly cryt downe and nocht vsyt.” (Translation: “And that the football and the golf be utterly cried down and not used.”)

The game of golf, as the OED notes, is “of considerable antiquity in Scotland.” And it’s surely older than that first citation in the dictionary.

If the sport was so popular that it had to be banned, then obviously both the game and the word “golf” were around for quite some time before that 15th-century law was passed.

Why the ban? Apparently the military-minded Scottish kings felt that able-bodied men should be busying themselves with longbows instead of golf clubs. In the end, the prohibition proved futile, and James IV eventually took up the game himself.

But to get back to the noun “golf,” its origin is obscure. The first recorded spelling was “golf,” though later Middle English spellings included “gouff,” “goiff,” and “golfe.”

The OED notes that the word is “commonly supposed to be an adoption” of a Dutch word, kolf or kolv, which means “club” and refers to “the stick, club, or bat, used in several games of the nature of tennis, croquet, hockey, etc.”

So did the game or golf originate in the Netherlands? Sports historians have debated the issue for years. It’s perhaps inevitable that when you’re talking about a game that involves hitting balls with sticks, you’re going to get disagreement about where it came from.

The OED seems to come down on the side of Scotland as the origin: “None of the Dutch games have been convincingly identified with golf, nor is it certain that kolf was ever used to denote the game as well as the implement, though the game was and is called kolven.”

In some modern Scots dialects, the OED notes, the word for “golf” is gowf, which literally means “a blow with the open hand.” The pronunciation roughly rhymes with “loaf.”

This Scottish version apparently influenced an “l”-less pronunciation of “golf” (it rhymes with “off”) that the OED describes as “somewhat fashionable in England.”

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