What is the etymology of this golfing word of warning?
Why do golfers shout fore! not heads or watch out or duck or even igglybogglydo to warn those who may be hit by an errant shot?
The short answer is that no-one quite knows. The long answer is that most agree that fore is a foreshortening of another word or phrase. However the etymologists cannot agree which word or phrase.
But even that general statement would be contested by some. Fore as a word in itself means “situated in front” and it is argued that a cry of fore! was originally simply a way to warn those situated in front that a ball was coming their way.
There is an old joke of a player asking his caddie “you any good at finding golf balls?” And when informed yes, the player replies: “Good – well go and find one then and then I can play a round”. But if the fellow was so tight, how come he was forking out on a caddy? Well once upon a time caddies were relatively cheap and golf balls were expensive.
In those days – and we’re going back a few centuries here – players would employ forecaddies to spot where the ball went as the player could scarce afford to lose such an expensive object.
The role of the forecaddie has all but gone from modern golf – except in top professional tournaments that is. You know, those events played by multi-millionaires who don’t even pay for their golf balls. But in days when they were common, the shout of fore! was an abbreviation of forecaddie! a shouted warning to the ball spotter that a ball was on its way for him to spot.
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The English language has adopted many phrases from martial life, particularly naval terms. For example ‘no room to swing a cat’ has nothing to do with Tibbles but refers to the cat o’ nine tails that seaman were flogged with. Floggings took place on deck because down below the headroom was so low that there was no room to swing a cat o’ nine tails.
So another theory of why golfers shout fore! is that is an abbreviation of ‘beware before!’ This is a military term used by artillerymen to warn the infantrymen ahead of them on the frontline to watch out that missiles were about to be launched.