Birdies, bogeys, and baffies: the language of golf
Golfing jargon can seem rather arcane to the uninitiated, so here is a short guide to help you navigate the bunkers and water hazards of golf language.
Competitors will be aiming to make par – the standard number of shots allowed for each hole (from the Latin for ‘equal’) – hence the expression ‘par for the course’. Scoring one stroke below par results in a birdie, a word which originates in an American slang term for an impressive achievement. A more literal interpretation of birdie has given rise to the terms eagle (two under par) and albatross (three under par). A score of one stroke above par is known as a bogey; originally the term for the ‘ground score’ (the expected number of shots per hole), its origin is thought to derive from a Major Wellman, who likened playing against the ground score to competing with a ‘regular bogey-man’.
Leading with clubs
The modern game of golf has dropped many of the wonderfully quaint terms for clubs in favour of a bland numbering system. Sadly we will hear nothing of the niblick (or ‘little beak’), brassy (coated in brass), baffy (from French baffe ‘blow with the back of the hand’), mashie (from French masse ‘sledgehammer’), or the jigger (apparently related to the dance), brandished by the game’s early practitioners. Another antiquated golf term is the verb foozle, meaning ‘mess up’ or ‘bungle’ a shot; appropriately enough, this verb can also be used to mean ‘fool around’ or ‘waste time’. Although they no longer foozle, modern golfers are just as likely to hook, slice, top, or shank a shot; most embarrassing of all is the whiff – or air shot – although at least there’s no difficulty locating the ball afterwards. For the amateur golfer, there’s something comforting about watching a professional reduced to shouting fore – a warning to those standing before (hence ‘fore) the ball which follows a stray shot. In such circumstances Masters competitors are unlikely to be offered a mulligan: the chance to replay the shot without having it count on the scorecard. The term was coined by David B. Mulligan (1871-1954), a keen golfer (and presumably an erratic driver) who introduced it to the Winged Foot Golf Club in New York State.
If this hasn’t whetted your appetite and you’ve no interest in the upcoming golfing spectacle, then you can at least enjoy the beautiful scenery and outrageous fashion statements. But be warned, you are likely to be treated to the sight of golfers in their knickers – the US term for what the Brits call plus-fours.
Simon Horobin is the author of Does Spelling Matter?
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