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Origins of the Word 'Golf': Does It Mean 'Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden'?

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18th century woodcut showing golfers at St. Andrews
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Did the word "golf" originate as an acronym for "gentlemen only, ladies forbidden"? That's a common old wives' tale. Or, in this case, more likely an old husband's tale.

No, "golf" is not an acronym for "gentlemen only, ladies forbidden." If you've ever heard that, forget it immediately. Better yet, find the person who told you and let them know it's not true.

Like most modern words, the word "golf" derives from older languages and dialects. In this case, the languages in question are medieval Dutch and old Scots.

The medieval Dutch word "kolf" or "kolve" meant "club." It is believed that word passed to the Scots, whose old Scots dialect transformed the word into "golve," "gowl" or "gouf."

By the 16th Century, the word "golf" had emerged.

So why do so many people continue to spread the myth that "golf" is an acronym for "gentlemen only, ladies forbidden"? Like so many other myths (or what in modern times we might call "urban legends"), this is one that is very hard to kill off.

Plus, the history of golf gives the myth a veneer of believability. After all, for long parts of its history, golf was a sport dominated by men and rarely played by women. Even after women began playing golf in greater numbers, many golf clubs and courses restricted or even banned membership by women golfers. In fact, golf clubs still exist today that do not allow female members.

It's likely that that the myth of "gentlemen only, ladies forbidden" arose as a joke made by golfers during earlier times, in the late 19th century or early 20th century, when no-women-allowed golf clubs were far more common than they are now.

In other words, golf's sexist past is the origin of the "gentlemen only, ladies forbidden" myth; rather than "gentlemen only, ladies forbidden" being the origin of the word "golf."

More golf word origins:
Why do golfers yell 'fore'?
Where do the terms birdie and eagle come from?
How did 'mulligan' acquire its golf meaning?

More similar articles plus other historical FAQs can be found at our Golf History FAQ index.

Sources: British Golf Museum, USGA Library

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