Theories abound on the term’s origin, including one from Scotland’s most famous queen

Never let the facts get in the way of a great turn of phrase. Dan Jenkins, one of golf’s legendary wordsmiths, intrinsically understood this. He employed this trick throughout his career, including in the famous opener to his Sports Illustrated 1978 retrospective on Arnold Palmer’s 1960 U.S. Open victory: “They were the most astonishing four hours in golf since Mary, Queen of Scots found out what dormie meant and invented the back nine.”

Everyone, including Jenkins, knows the 16th-century Scottish monarch didn’t invent the back nine. But it’s possible that she didn’t simply find out about dormie; she might have introduced the term to the game. That’s one of many potential origins for this curious word.

Spanish golfer Seve Ballesteros on the 17th green during a Ryder Cup match at The Belfry, Warwickshire, 15th September 1985.
Seve Ballesteros taught a great many match-play opponents the meaning of dormie.

Unlike more broadly popular terms like “hole-in-one” or “par for the course” that have crossed into other sports and walks of life, dormie (sometimes spelled “dormy”) remains closely hewn to the game. Any golfer who’s battled back from two down with two to play—or watched the U.S. flail about on a Ryder Cup Sunday—knows it well. Just don’t believe them if they tell you they know where the term comes from.

The Oxford English Dictionary traces the term back to 1887, but Merriam-Webster has found it earlier, as far back as 1847. An 1892 example from the Pall Mall Gazette uses the term in a discussion of how nervousness can impair your game: “The match, it may be, is drawing to a close; you are, we will say, ‘all even’ so far, and only one more hole remains to be played after this. Should you lose this one, your antagonist will be ‘dormy,’ that is to say, he will be one hole up with one to play; so that, although you may yet halve the match, you will not be able to win it.” 

The meaning of dormie has remained stable, and within the golf universe, since the 1800s, but no one has firmly defined its origin. The USGA Museum says it might have arisen from “dormir,” which means “to sleep” in French and Spanish. The idea is that if you’re dormie, you might as well take a nap, since you’re in no danger of losing. The golf-lexicon section of U.K. website GolfToday says, “Purists who insist that all things golf must have come out of Scotland” believe that golf-loving, French-speaking Mary, Queen of Scots, may have introduced dormie to English (along with caddie—it seems she was a legendary wordsmith). 

Another theory involves varmints rather than royalty. According to the Historical Dictionary of Golf, there may be a relationship between “dormice” and “dormie.” Dormice are tiny rodents that are seldom seen, inspiring a bit of superstition in Scotland. Unlike other rodents, which tend to provoke screams and panic, dormice are considered good luck—a four-leaf clover of rodents. So perhaps the good omen of seeing dormice built a lexical bridge to the good news of being dormie.

Each of these explanations still feels a bit dubious. Like people, words that resemble each other aren’t necessarily related. But if the origin of dormie has nothing to do with famous queens, sleeping, rodents or sleeping rodents, that takes nothing away from its usefulness and appeal. With or without a known etymology, it’s good to be dormie. 

Mark Peters is a columnist for McSweeney’s, a professional etymologist and a comedian. His latest book is Bullshit: A Lexicon.