The Origin in 'Fore!' in Golf

The etymology for the word "Fore!" is not absolutely certain. The Oxford English Dictionary records its first use in 1878 as a warning cry to people in front of a golf stroke and, like most people, believes it is an abbreviation of the word 'before'. There is an earlier reference in 1857 in a glossary of golfing terms. Its origin is almost certainly earlier and bound up with that of the word Caddie.

Currently, there are three explanations for the origins of term FORE!

From Forecaddie! to Fore!

Because golf balls were expensive, golfers employed "Forecaddies" to stand where the ball might land and reduce the number of lost balls, as is done in tournaments today.

In 1824 the Rules of the Thistle Golf Club recount a conversation which a youthful Mr Tytler of Woodhouselee, an 'Antiquary' in Edinburgh,  had with the aged Andrew Dickson when he said that he had performing this role for the Duke of York in 1681 at Leith Links.

Dickson was then performing the duty of what is now commonly called a fore-cady.

Robert Clark repeated the story in his history in 1875 as 'what is now commonly called a fore-caddie'

It is probable that golfers shouted to their 'Forecaddie!', who would always be some distance ahead to draw attention to the fact the ball was coming and, in time, this was shortened to 'Fore! The almost contemporaneous appearance of the terms caddie, fore-caddie and Fore! supports this theory over others.

Shoot over their heads!

A second explanation, still given by the USGA, derives from the military battle craft of musket days, when rank after rank would fire fusillades, some over the heads of those in front. It was speculated that the term Fore! might have been used to warn those in front to keep their heads down.

Modern historians pour cold water on this theory, partly because it is difficult to relate it to a Scottish golf connection and partly because the relevant military terms used do not bear any relation.  However, this theory may in fact be a misunderstanding of the theory below.

Ware Before! - the John Knox story

There is a third explanation, which appears utterly implausible, but which is an outside possibility. It derives from a story told by John Knox (1505?-1572) the 'hell-fire' protestant reformer. He tells the tale, as only hell-fire preachers can, of someone arriving at the East Port (east gate) of Leith. This story was noticed by Dr Neilson and subsequently reported by Robert Browning in his book 'History of Golf' (1955) thus:

'One among many comes to the East Port of Leith, where lay two great pieces of ordnance, and where their enemies were known to be, and cried to his fellows that were at the gate making defence: "Ware Before!" and so fires one great piece, and thereafter the other.'

So Fore!' could be derived from an artillery term warning gunners to stand clear. This last explanation means, firstly, that the term 'Ware Before!' (Beware Before!) was foreshortened to Fore! (rather than Ware!) and, secondly, it must have been sufficiently well known to be used by golfers.

It seems the 'Forecaddie' explanation was plausible, until a construction company dug up a body in Leith. It turned out the body was two thousand years old, but, more importantly, it was lying next to the last and only known remnant of Ramsay's Fort. This was part of the great fortifications that ringed Leith, including the aforementioned East Gate, which were built by the French to withstand the Siege of Leith by the English in 1560.

The English did not take the fort, but the fortifications were destroyed not long afterwards as part of the uneasy peace with England. However, there are still two hillocks on Leith Links, allegedly gun embankments called 'Lady Fife's Brae' and 'Giant's Brae', built by Sir William Pelham, Captain of the English Pioneers, in 1560.

The remains of Ramsay's Fort have mostly been recovered but the builders left a small pit so that top of part of the wall can be seen in the car park of new flats on Tower Street.

The years that John Knox could have been in Leith to hear of the story of the guns overlaps only this fort. Given the somewhat contrary nature of his views, he was often either in exile, or a prisoner or latterly at Berwick during his adult life.

When we look at the history and layout of Ramsay's Fort, it is clear that the East Gate directly overlooked the Links where golfers were playing, as best they could, among all the military preparations and sieges that went on in the middle of the 16th Century.

The gunners and the golfers would have got to know each well as they each practised their arts at Leith Links. Today the north links are built up, and only a small part of the south links remains

The noise of the gunnery practice would be remembered, if heard. It is possible the gunners used the term to warn the golfers, when they were practicing firing and the golfers then began to use it among themselves. The golf players at Leith Links were influential people in political and golfing terms.

If they used the term, others would follow. However the fort was destroyed after only a short number of years, so it could be the gunnery cry lived on only in the memory of the golfers, which might explain why they foreshortened the term to 'Fore!' as a misremembering of the term.

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Find out more about golf terminology from the PGA

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