By Anatoly Liberman
Before we embark on the etymology of golf, something should be said about the pronunciation of the word. Golf does not rhyme with wolf (because long ago w changed the vowel following it), but in the speech of some people it rhymes with oaf, and “goafers” despises everyone who would allow l to creep in between o and f. Here is part of a letter to the editor dated November 1893: “Among the old players of the game it is called goff. ‘Caddies’ at St. Andrews and such places call it gowff. I have heard respectable individuals call it goaf (like loaf). Golf (the l being sounded) is unknown in Scotland. What boots it that one old gentleman of Blackheath renown should say golf (sounding the l)? He is simply wrong.” Nothing is more important than knowing the ultimate truth. (St. Andrews is the Royal & Ancient Golf Club St. Andrews, founded in 1754. It occupies a most imposing building. If my never-to-be-fulfilled dream to organize a center for English etymology came true, I would be overjoyed to have a fiftieth part of such an edifice at my disposal. Blackheath, 1608, is the seat of the oldest golf club in England.) As far as etymology is concerned, the rift between the two schools boots not at all. Scots golf, though unrecorded, must have preceded gowf or goff. In English, including its northernmost varieties, l was lost between a vowel and a consonant, as in folk, walk, talk, chalk, half, calf, rather early (oaf itself is derived from Olaf, a doublet of alf “elf”) but inconsistently. Dutch has gone much further along this path. Since in Scotland people played golf before it became a favorite sport in England, we may assume that golf is the bookish (spelling) pronunciation, while goff ~ gouf(f) reflects the popular norm.
Some old ideas on the origin of golf should be disregarded. According to one of them, the etymon of golf is Swedish golv “floor.” But why should a lawn game that has never been played on the floor, and in medieval Sweden not played at all, be called “floor”? And the Swedish for “golf” is golf, not golv! There are only two viable possibilities: the word is either Dutch or Scots. The Dutch hypothesis has a strong foundation, whereas in Scots we have only gouf(f) “to strike,” an onomatopoeia, a “sound gesture” accompanying a blow, unless (which is more likely) it was coined on analogy with the noun golf. Middle Dutch kolv meant “club, bat.” Calling a game by its main implement is possible. Evidently, this happened in the history of cricket (compare Flemish cricke(e) “stick”). The lack of consensus about the origin of golf stems from Oxford’s negative (or, let us say, extremely cautious) attitude toward the word’s Dutch descent. This is what the OED says: “[N]one of the Dutch games have been convincingly identified with golf, nor is it certain that kolv was ever used to denote the game as well as the implement, though the game was and is called kolven (the infinitive of the derived v[er]b). Additional difficulty is caused by the absence of any Scottish forms with initial c or k and by the fact that golf is mentioned much earlier than any of the Dutch sports.” Few people are prepared to contest the OED. Yet in light of the latest research there is no need to doubt the Dutch or Flemish origin of golf. The chronological difficulty will be taken care of below. Less clear is the relation of Engl. g to Flemish k.
If golf were borrowed from German, there would have been no problem: in many German dialects the difference between b/p, d/t, and g/k is non-existent or hard to discern for an outsider, but in Dutch and Flemish those consonants have not merged pairwise. I can offer only a rather feeble explanation. In English, p, t, and k are aspirated; in Dutch they are not. In a phonetic lab, when English informants are exposed to tapes with unaspirated p, t, and k, they take them for b, d, g, though the most obvious case is p, not k (thus, listeners tend to identify park, pronounced by Slavic and Romance speakers without aspiration, with bark). Perhaps this is what happened in the history of kolv ~ golf.
The most active proponent of the Dutch origin of golf has for years been Heiner Gillmeister. He observed that in 1261 the famous Flemish poet Jacob van Maerlant translated Robert de Boron’s “novel” Livre de Merlin from Old French into a language we now call Middle Dutch. In that work, choule, a French game, was glossed as kolven. From the description it follows that choule, or soule à la crosse, was not a harmless game we associate with golf, but a variety of medieval football played with the shepherd’s crook and notorious for its violence. In the ordinances of the city of Brussels (1360) it was said that a citizen who played kolven would be fined 20 shillings and have his upper garment confiscated. We now understand why the Scottish King James II also ordered that “the fut bal ande the golf be vtterly cryt downe and nocht vsyt.” This was written in 1447; in James’s decree golf occurs in English for the first time.
Gillmeister, who drew heavily on the 1261 text, succeeded in showing that golf was mentioned in the Low Countries much earlier than in Scotland and that both the game and the implement were indeed called kolven. He also adduced some arguments proving that the development of the fiercely fought game into a peaceful one took place in the Netherlands rather than Scotland. In a 1908 short note, Ernest Weekley remarked about a 16th-century description of golf: “That the Scotch game was identical with the Dutch game from which it took its name is improbable.” He was right. I am not sure Gillmeister knew that note, but his investigation corroborated Weekley’s view. This is all fine, and only the k ~ g difference still worries me somewhat.
My local pride makes me state that the Minneapolis Institute of Arts holds a picture by the Flemish painter Paul Bril in which we can see the game of choule in progress (naturally, Gillmeister was aware of the picture). Those who want to see the original Bril are welcome to the Twin Cities, but we will show you Jan Steen’s “The Feast of St. Nicholas” (“Het St. Nicolaasfeest,” 1765-1768; Amsterdam).
Here is a question to our knowledgeable correspondents: Are the implements the boy has a golf ball and a golf club?
If so, isn’t the niblick too big for such a small child? Thank you for your prospective comments. I am not a golf player and will take criticism gratefully and humbly.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”