Not that golfers care much when their ball is sailing off 45 degrees the wrong direction, but the word “shank” is a powerful, punchy term that’s got more history and versatility than one would expect.
Shank began as an anatomical word, popping up in English around the year 1000 in reference to the shin area. The word broadened, as words do, to mean the whole leg. This meaning survives today in references to animal legs: For example, beef shank is the leg of a steer.
King Edward I, who ruled England in the late 1200s, was known as Longshanks. Fans of the movie Braveheart might be surprised to learn that the nickname sprang from Edward’s long legs, not his penchant for taking many knives to many Scots.
This leggy origin has spawned several related meanings. Since the 1700s, “shanking” has meant “to walk.” If someone walked away, you could say they shanked it or shanked away. A use in George Douglas Brown’s 1901 novel The House With the Green Shutters describes an unwelcome fella: “Let him shank it! We’re in no hurry to have him home.” The term migrated to botany but stayed low, anatomy-wise: A plant that has decayed at the foot of the stem has “shanked off.” Similarly, the idiom “shank of the evening” refers to the night’s end.
These terms paved the way for golf’s shank—hitting the ball off the club’s heel or hosel—which has been found in print since the early 20th century. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first recorded use is from 1924’s The Modern Golfer by Cyril J.H. Tolley, which states a timeless truth: “Shanking is a fault which is frequently occurring.”
As with other golf terms, like “the yips,” shanking exists in other sports. Much like in golf, shanking in tennis involves hitting the ball with the wrong part of the equipment—specifically, the racket’s frame. A 1978 article from Galveston, Texas’ The Daily News notes, “Navratilova shanked a forehand halfway up the net.”
A recent CBS Chicago story paints a depressing portrait for local NFL fans: “The wind was calm, the snap was smooth and the hold was proper, but Bears kicker Connor Barth simply shanked the game-tying field-goal attempt.” Even basketball players can shank, as seen in an Asbury Park Press article about the Rutgers basketball team, describing how they “shanked five point-blank shots in the first half—two dunks, three layups.”
If such wide uses of shank bug you, blame golfers, who use the term quite loosely. In an article for Grantland in 2013, Caleb Hannan (a fellow Golfer’s Journal contributor) lamented how shank is used to describe all sorts of bad shots, including mishits that would be better described as whiffs, slices and duffs.
But such meaning drift is often a natural evolution for words, especially useful ones. To complain about the loose meaning of shank is like insisting that Frankenstein is the name of the doctor, not the monster. Sure, that was true originally, but after almost two centuries of use, “Frankenstein” means the doctor, the monster and any other kind of unholy creation that comes back to haunt its creator.
Shank likewise has a specialized golf meaning, a general golf meaning and many other uses within our vocabulary, from anatomy to unwanted outcomes ranging from missed kicks to a “prison shank.” Like so many golfers, our lexicon rarely hits the ball straight.
Mark Peters is a columnist for McSweeney’s and a professional etymologist and comedian. His most recent book is titled Bullshit: A Lexicon.