What Does 'Golf' Stand For?

Think about the word golf. Are the letters initials? What does "g.o.l.f." stand for? That's a question we are sometimes asked by people who have heard that the word "golf" was first created as an acronym, as initials that stood for a phrase. But the answer to the question, "What does golf stand for?" is "nothing." The word "golf" is not an acronym, the letters in the word are not initials. Which, of course, means that "golf" does not stand for "gentlemen only ladies forbidden."

Many, probably most, people who think or have heard that the word is an acronym have heard that it stands for "gentlemen only, ladies forbidden." No, "golf" did not derive from that phrase. That's an old canard. It's an old joke, actually: Guys on the golf course joshing about golf being a four-letter word, sharing jokes, when one of them pipes up, "Hey, did you know golf stands for 'gentlemen only, ladies forbidden'?"

No, it doesn't. It never did. Because "golf" is not an acronym; the letters g, o, l and f do not stand for anything because they are not initials.

The word "golf," spelled that way and referring to a game that we would recognize today, was first used in 1425. But like a lot of words in modern English, this one, too, derives from earlier words in other languages or dialects.

The word "golf" can be traced to the Old Scots words variously spelled as goulf, gowf, gouff and goffe (among others), all referring to striking something. Before that, it's possible that the Dutch word kolf might have influenced the Scots; the meaning of "kolf" was "club."

It's possible that you've heard that "golf" got its name by flipping around the word "flog." It's true that golf is flog spelled backwards, and that many golfers, on tough days, have felt like they were being flogged out there on the golf course. But we've already seen, in the paragraph above, that the word "golf," in that spelling, goes back to the 15th century and derived from earlier words.

The "gentlemen only, ladies forbidden" joke appears to have started some time in the 1900s, but pinning down a more precise time is difficult. The joke seems to have really picked up steam, though, in the 1990s, when the Internet came into wider usage and became a way of spreading urban legends, jokes and false information.

So, to reiterate: What does golf stand for? Nothing. It is not an acronym — it is a word that, in English, dates to the 1400s, and derives from earlier words taken from the Old Scots and Dutch languages.

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