A crystal-clear word with a murky origin

Exclamations are the most visceral, emotional and easily understood words. The celebratory “Whoo!”, the frightened “Ahh!” and the frustrated “Damn it!” are about as clear as words get. While not quite as guttural, “Fore!” is more functional. Everyone, especially on a public course, knows what it means. 

No sane person wants to hit somebody in the head with a golf ball, so shouting this single syllable—along with “Right!” or “Left!”—is simply the right thing to do. “Fore” has transcended golf, careening like a wayward drive into the popular lexicon. But while even non-golfers understand the meaning of fore, it’s not common knowledge why that’s the word we yell just after sending the ball toward a vulnerable, unintended target. As with so many words, the origin is murky, and there are several possible explanations, some of which might be too good to be true.

The Oxford English Dictionary has a disappointingly skimpy entry on “fore,” listing only a single example, from an 1878 sports guide, and no etymological theories. Many other sources mention the plausible explanation that “fore” evolved from “forecaddie.” Forecaddies used to be sent ahead to retrieve golf balls that went astray, since new balls weren’t as easy to acquire back then. Perhaps yelling “Forecaddie!” morphed into the infinitely more yell-able “Fore!” 

Forecaddie was common by the late 1700s, as seen in a 1789 usage in Scots Magazine that referred to someone “performing the duty of what is now called a “fore-cadie.” If you think “forecaddie” is an odd-sounding word, trust that it wasn’t always. Fore used to be a popular prefix in adjectives, such as “fore-promise” and “fore-smell,” and in nouns, such as “fore-wheel” and “fore-flap.” 

Other theories—such as a few recounted by golf historian Neil Laird—give “Fore!” a military origin. The USGA says the expression “most probably originated in military circles, where it was used by artillery men as a warning to troops in forward positions. Golfers as early as the 18th century simply adopted this military warning cry for use on the links.” Note the words “most probably,” which don’t instill much confidence. 

A more specific version of this theory involves the exclamation “Ware before!” (itself a shortened version of “Beware before!”). That alliterative phrase used to be a military expression used by artillery men to give fellow soldiers a heads-up. Laird does find some circumstantial evidence that supports this theory, but it’s still mostly guesswork. True or not, a military origin feels right, maybe because of the similarities of “Fore!” to “Fire in the hole!”—the name of an Elmore Leonard short story and an exclamation meaning “Watch out for the explosive I just tossed or ignited!” 

Like so much of golf culture, “Fore!” is rooted in politeness, which unfortunately doesn’t guarantee the prevention of a ball-head collision. But yelling “Fore!” not only gives a heads-up—it shows you tried to do the right thing, which, short of hitting the ball straight, is the best any of us can do. Unless we have the resources of a Phil Mickelson, whose practice of slipping a hundred-dollar bill to victims of errant drives is legendary. For the victim, that sort of “Fore!” failure is definitely worth the “Ouch!”

Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Mark Peters is a columnist for McSweeneys, and a professional etym-ologist and comedian. His most recent book is titled Bullshit: A Lexicon.