Par for the course

Putting golf terms in context

Let’s say you’ve just arrived from another planet, with a mastery of English, but little exposure to the popular sport known as golf. So you don’t understand why one golfer would hit a “banana ball” and end up with a “bogey,” while another used a “chicken stick” and ended up with an “eagle.”

Like most sports, golf has a lexicon all its own. Many terms never make it off the course—calling a sand bunker a “cat box” or “kitty litter” seems wrong in polite company—while words like “bogey,” “par,” and “eagle” are common shorthand.

In the U.S., “par” is the number of strokes a good player is expected to need to complete a hole, while “bogey” is one stroke more than “par.” But if you said “I bogeyed that hole” to someone in England, the response might be “Good show!” In England, “bogey” is the same as “par.” Or it was, before televised golf tournaments forced commentators to switch to the American view regardless of local parlance.

The current view of the source of “bogey,” The Oxford English Dictionary says, is “The Bogey Man,” a song popular in the late nineteenth century, which taunted people to try to catch an evil spirit, the bogey man.

A golfer in 1890 was new to the idea of a set number of strokes for each hole (called a “ground score” then). It was so difficult for him to reach the ground score, he said, that he called it his “bogey-man.” For a number of years, a “Bogey score” was a desired goal, albeit elusive. But a 1946 U.S. book, Golf Simplified, defined “bogey” as one stroke over par, and the term stuck.

“Eagle,” the term for two under par, is an obvious descendant of “birdie,” one under par. “Birdie” itself began in England in 1911 as “bird,” from a slang term for an exceptional person, the OED says. But its use was primarily American, as witness this 1923 quote from The Daily Mail in London: “Then he went all out to ‘shoot birdies’ … the American colloquialism for aiming at doing holes in a stroke under the par scores.”

A “banana ball,” according to the U.S. Golf Association, is a ball that curves away from the player, in the shape of a banana. In other words, a “slice.” And a “chicken stick” is the safer club used for a difficult shot when the choice is between the obvious club and a more heroic, but riskier, club. The player is “chicken” and takes the easy way out.

“Par” itself, of course, is from the Latin meaning “equality,” and has meanings far beyond the world of golf. “Par value” of a financial instrument is face value, as opposed to market value; “on a par with” means at the same level as something else; and “she’s feeling under par” means she’s not as well as she could be.

In that case, chicken soup is in order.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl. Tags: , , , , ,