It has been said repeatedly that the game of golf is a microcosm of life itself. The frustrations, the acceptance of fortune and misfortune, the sublime and ridiculous while persisting in the endeavour of progress is something that we all experience on and off the course.
A hole in one is not unlike winning the lottery for one can live off it for years. A block out of bounds can be likened to a personal tragedy and a lost ball to bereavement.
There must truly be something about the game as an analogy to life for golf is the only game that has contributed significantly to the general vocabulary. Indeed, some terms that have their origins in golf have become so commonplace that their original meaning is long forgotten.
In the erudite world of political debate, the word stymied has become a standard. Just watch any late night political affairs programme on TV and, if you can stay awake long enough, you can be sure that some self-aggrandising political aspirant will claim to be stymied over some issue or other. Something or somebody will be stymieing investments in transport, education or the health services. Politicians live off the perennial excuse that the wretchedness of the opposition, if not cruel fate, is stymieing their best intentions.
Ironically the stymie is long since gone from the game. In its day, the stymie referred to an opponents ball ending up along the line between your ball and the hole on the putting green. The word itself derives from the Scots vernacular word for a nearly blind person. It was most generally used as an adjective to describe a spiritually dim-sighted person one having difficulty seeing the light so to speak. Spoken with a Scots accent stymied conveys a sense of passionate frustration.
It is not surprising that the Oxford English Dictionary of 1902 records the figurative use of the word as thwarting, as in a man having stymied a rival in love. But it is clear from vernacular Scots verse that the word was used as a metaphor for the frustrations of life long before that.
Stymie must have been in common use in golf long before the Musselburgh Club printed its rules in 1834. There, one finds that, with regard to Stymies the ball nearest the hole if within six inches shall be lifted. From this one can conclude that further than six inches and you were stymied and you had to do whatever you could to get to the hole.
Fairway is another word that has found its way into common parlance. Take a walk through any part of post-war suburbia and among the Journeys Ends, Shangri-Las and The Havens you will find a Fairway. The word evokes sentiments of green and pleasant lands and clearly reflects the feelings of satisfaction and contentment familiar to anyone who has ever hit a ball off a tee a fair way onto close mown turf in line with a golf hole.
The word itself derives from a nautical expression for the navigable channel or usual course for a vessel in a river or at sea. Its place in golf refers to the smooth mown turf between tee and putting green, distinguished from uncut rough and from hazards. Needless to say, fairway enjoys even less common use in analogy for life experiences as it does in most common rounds of golf.
The earliest use of the word bunker would appear to have been in Fife in 1812 with reference to golf. But the word is of very early Scots origin for it has many meanings. It can refer to a slab beside a sink; a window seat and chest; a turf seat, a sandpit or a sandy gap in turf.
Clearly it is from the latter that the word came to find a place in the language of golf. And it is from golf that the word has slipped into the English international vocabulary, referring specifically to being in trouble not entirely in consequence of your own best efforts.
But bunker has another derivation that is equally apposite. Again in nautical terms, as a verb, it means to take on fuel. Few who have played a cracking tee shot only to see the ball plummet into a bunker will fail to appreciate the fuelling analogy.
The auld Scots game has contributed caddie, green, teed-up, hole, driver and iron as well as now forgotten gems like mashie, spoon and niblick. Jigger is another gem and to be jiggered remains something special to an inebriated Scot. But sclaff is the really undervalued word that has not gained the widespread usage it deserves.
In Scots golf the sclaff is to hit the ground a glancing blow before striking the ball. It also has commonplace usage in describing a blow with the palm of the hand. But it is also used to refer to old worn out shoes and in particular to scuffed, once very good shoes approaching the end of their days. The quality may still show but senescence predominates. This is surely a term that could be widely used to great effect.
Golfs real contribution to expression is, however, best seen in what remains unsaid. The silent mouthing of words, usually of Anglo Saxon origin, that surpass expletive and take on an entirely new meaning when mouthed slowly and silently while delivering a bit of body language that only a missed short putt can elicit. In this respect many notable players have an oratory that is all their own [Or even 'par for the course?' Ed]
|| 28 - MARCH 2002