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shameless pleading

Yips

I’m still working on my own invention, Kalashnikov Scrabble.

Dear Word Detective: Wondering where the word “yips” came from, as in “I got the yips and missed the putt.” — Phil Jones.

Oh boy, a golf question. Not a surprise. Call me psychic, but I knew this was coming as soon as it began to snow. Unless you live in some unnatural place like Florida or Southern California, the winter months are bleak, golfly-speaking. So it’s no wonder golfers’ minds turn to decoding all the strange locutions they’ve been using all summer.

I should note at the outset that I am neither an authority on, nor a devotee of, golf. Mark Twain famously called golf “a good walk spoiled,” to which I can only add that I am not all that fond of long walks, either. But maybe golf just needs a little tweaking. The late Hunter S. Thompson, in his last column for espn.com, announced his invention of a fascinating variant on the game, which he called “shotgun golf.” It’s a simple (but very loud) game for two players: one player, using a conventional club, lofts the ball toward the hole, while the other, using a twelve-gauge shotgun, attempts to blow the ball out of the air with buckshot. It sounds awesome, but I suspect it might be hard to find a caddy.

For a game whose pace ranges from stately to glacial, golf has developed quite a range of lively terms, from “birdie” (one stroke under par for a given hole, from “bird” meaning “something excellent” in 19th century slang) to “bogey” (a good score for a hole, usually the same as par) to “eagle” (a “super birdie,” two strokes under par) and beyond. “Bogey,” by the way, was coined by a certain Major Wellman, playing at the Great Yarmouth Club in England in 1890. Unfamiliar with the club custom of playing against an ideal “ground score” for each hole, the Major said that he felt as if he were playing against an invisible, expert opponent, whom he dubbed “the bogey-man” (probably because “The Bogey-Man” was the title of a popular song at the time).

“The yips” is a new one on me, but I instinctively had a sense of its meaning, which is the mark of good slang. (On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine “the yips” being a positive condition.) This “yips” is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary (AHD) as “nervousness or tension that causes an athlete to fail to perform effectively, especially in missing short putts in golf,” and dictionaries seem to agree that it made its first appearance in print in 1963. Strictly speaking, the origin of “yips” is unknown, but the AHD quite reasonably suggests it might be “imitative of jerky motions caused by tension.” This “yips” is also evocative of “yip” in the standard meaning of “short, sharp cry of surprise or distress,” dating back to the 15th century and imitative of the actual sound of a “yip.” I would imagine that if one were suddenly overcome by anxiety over a short but delicate and crucial putt that the twitching of one’s muscles might be very reminiscent of the yipping of a small, excited dog. Or perhaps the difficulty of concentration presented by the putt is being compared to having an actual small yipping dog among the spectators. Another good reason to bring a shotgun.

Its apparently possible for players in other sports to develop “the yips” at crucial, high-pressure moments, and I can think of all sorts of times the word would be appropriate in non-sports settings. Public speaking is one; choosing between the Smut Beam or the Grope at the airport gate is another. Personally, I tend to freeze up when the waiter asks if I’d like lemon in my water, which is why I generally just stay home and eat lots of toast.

Incidentally, sometime soon I’m going to receive my annual query about whether the word “golf” was originally an acronym for “Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden.” Let me cut that off at the pass this year by saying, as emphatically as possible in print, “absolutely not.” The origin of the word “golf” is uncertain, but it is most likely based on either the Dutch “kolf,” meaning “a club” (as in croquet) or the Scots word “gowf,” meaning “to strike.”

2 comments to Yips

  • I went looking for the origin of the word, “yips” because I watched the movie, “The human comedy” the other night. It was made the year I was born, 1943, and featured California (also where I was born). There is an interesting interlude in the movie featuring Robert Mitchum and two other soldiers who meet a couple of girls. They tease one of the three with the words,”he has the yips” in order to gain the sympathy of the two girls. The word may have shown up in print in 1963 but it was in use by 1943.

  • The word “yips” was in use in 1943. In the movie, The Human Comedy, Robert Mitchum and another actor teased a third (all soldiers) saying “he has the yips” in order to impress two girls they met and gain their sympathy.

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