Learn the Etymology of the Word Golf

Examining the legend about the origins of the word "Golf"

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"? The answer is an unequivocal "no." That's a common old wives' tale. Or, in this case, more likely an old husbands' tale.

"Golf" is not an acronym for "gentlemen only, ladies forbidden," and never was. If you've ever heard that, forget it immediately. Better yet, find the person who told you and let him—it's most likely a "him"—know it's not true.

The Etymology of 'Golf'

So if the myth about "golf" being an acronym isn't true, where does the word come from? Like most modern words, "golf" derives from older languages and dialects. In this case, the languages in question are Germanic—​medieval Dutch and old Scots.

There is some debate about the exact lineage of the word "golf." But the most commonly accepted etymology—the one endorsed by the British Golf Museum and United States Golf Association—is this:

  • 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.

Why the 'Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden' Myth Persists

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.

There's a reason for that: The discriminatory 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 though one of the most famous early golfers, Mary, Queen of Scots, was a woman. After women began playing golf in greater numbers, many golf clubs and courses continued to restrict or even ban membership by women golfers.

In fact, golf clubs that do not allow female members or restrict women's access to the course and clubhouse facilities still exist today.

It's likely that the myth of "gentlemen only, ladies forbidden" arose as a joke made by male golfers during earlier times, in the late 19th century to mid-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.

Origins of the Game

While the origins of the name "golf" are relatively clear, the origin of the game itself has been hotly debated. The Scots claim the game as their own, with a basic form of golf dating to least the mid-15th century, but the Dutch were playing similar stick-and-ball games (mostly on ice) from at least the 14th century. And, the Chinese claim a 1,000-year-old game called chuiwan is the real origin of golf, Regardless, of its true origin, the game as it is played today developed in Scotland.

Sources: British Golf Museum, USGA Library