The Grammarphobia Blog

The rub of the green

Q: In golf, the expression “rub of the green” basically means bad luck—as when a putt for a birdie is knocked off line by a dive-bombing red-winged blackbird. Does “rub” in this case have any link to Shakespeare’s “Aye, there’s the rub”?

A: When the noun “rub” showed up in regional English in East Anglia in the early 1500s, it referred to a stone used for sharpening a scythe—that is, a whetstone.

But by the 1570s, the noun was being used to mean an unevenness of the ground in the game of bowls, or lawn bowling.

In the 1580s, “rub” came to mean “an obstacle, impediment, or difficulty of a non-material nature,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Shakespeare was using “rub” in that sense in the early 1600s when he wrote Hamlet’s “to be, or not to be” soliloquy, which includes “there’s the rub.”

Is there a link, you ask, between Shakespeare’s use of “rub” and the golfing expression “rub of the green”?

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says the early sense of an obstacle in the game of bowls gave us the “extended sense of any obstacle or hindrance (as in Hamlet’s there’s the rub).”

We’d add that the usage in lawn bowling no doubt gave the golfing world the expression “rub of the green,” which showed up in the early 1800s, according to citations in the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest example of the golfing usage is an 1812 entry from The Story of R & A (1956), J. B. Salmond’s book about the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews:

“Whatever happens to a Ball by accident must be reckoned a Rub of the green.”

The OED says the expression has two meanings, the one you’re asking about and a wider one: “a) Golf an accidental interference with the course or position of a ball; (b) fig. good (also bad) fortune, esp. as determining events in a sporting match.”

Here’s an example of the wider sense from the Dec. 31, 1931, issue of the Times Literary Supplement:

If he is unfortunate in having finished his task before his problem was knocked completely out of shape by England’s suspension of the gold standard, that is just the ‘rub of the green.’ ”

By the way, when the expression “aye, there’s the rub” first showed up in Hamlet, the interjection “aye” was spelled “I.”

The expression doesn’t appear in the First Quarto (1603), the earliest print edition of Hamlet. (Some scholars consider the abbreviated text in the First Folio unreliable.)

But in the Second Quarto (1604), the expression is written as “I there’s the rub,” and in the First Folio (1623), it’s “I, there’s the rub.”

In fact, the word “aye”was spelled “I” when it suddenly showed up around 1575, according to the OED, and it appeared that way well into the 1600s.

The dictionary discusses several theories about the source of the word “aye,” but ultimately describes it as “origin unknown.”

However, Oxford Dictionaries online says that “aye” is “probably from I, first person personal pronoun, expressing assent.”

The online Collins Dictionary agrees that it’s “probably from pronoun I, expressing assent.”

And we’ll add our aye.

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