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Par for the Course: Slicing Through the Golf Lexicon

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 is adjunct assistant professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and president of Merrill Perlman Consulting, offering consulting and freelance editing services and training in journalism, grammar and usage. Among her clients are The New York Times, ProPublica and the Poynter Institute. She writes the "Language Corner" column and blog for Columbia Journalism Review. Merrill retired in June 2008 after 25 years at The New York Times, most recently as director of copy desks with responsibility for managing 150 copy editors. Click here to read more articles by Merrill Perlman.

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Comments from our users:

Friday August 17th 2012, 5:38 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Sports lingo is a catagory rife with complexity.
I'm glad your article liimited itself to golf.
How clewless the non-native speaker can be; a Chinese hignly educated Medical Doctor had no idea of the meaning of "thrown in the towel", for example.
Great subject.
Friday August 17th 2012, 5:39 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
...THROW in the towel...sorry.
Friday August 17th 2012, 11:17 AM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
My husband is an alien life form from Planet Golf, and I often wish I had a Golf/English dictionary to decipher the odd language he speaks - thanks for the translations!

In golf, par is very good; most golfers would be delighted to achieve that goal! But in the real world, when we say something is "par for the course", I think most of us interpret that to mean it's not particularly good or bad - it's average, just what one would expect. Agree? If so, I wonder when that shift in meaning occurred.

Q: Why was the golfer proud of his old socks?
A: Because he had a hole in one.

The Happy Quibbler
Friday August 17th 2012, 1:52 PM
Comment by: Timothy O.
And then there's this definition of "bogey," which I have often heard in business contexts: "a numerical standard of performance set up as a mark to be aimed at especially in competition." As I've heard it, it has been a synonym for "minimum acceptable performance." Which reminds me of Bogart in "Caine Mutiny": "Remember, on board my ship excellent performance is standard, -- standard performance is sub-standard and does not exist."
Sunday August 19th 2012, 5:19 PM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
Speaking (as Timothy O. was) of "sub-standard," a new miniature-golf course here in the Bay Area has named itself "Subpar." They want the name to be taken with a large dose of irony: http://www.subparminigolf.com/FAQ.html

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