In golf, a “birdie” is a score of one under par on a particular hole.
The Country Club in Atlantic City, New Jersey, has long laid claim to the first use of the term “birdie” in golf. Several versions of the story are extant, but all agree on key points. In 1898, 1899 or 1903 three golfers—George Crump (of Pine Valley fame), and brothers William and Abner Smith—were playing the par 4 second at The Country Club when one of the players hit his second to within inches of the hole, a shot which the others said was a “bird of a shot.” He finished in one under.
From there, facts diverge. One version says that it was Ab Smith who nearly holed out, while another says it was Crump. Calling the shot a “bird” either refers to the fact that the shot literally hit a bird before hitting the green, or to 19th century slang, in which calling something a “bird” supposedly meant anything excellent.
I’m actually skeptical of both of these. The hitting a bird in flight story is just too convenient. And to my knowledge (from reading a lot of late 19th and early 20th century literature), a “bird” in 19th century slang was a young female—particularly a promiscuous one. I suppose, however, that the players might have been comparing a pretty shot to a pretty female.
A dictionary of etymology I consulted gave some interesting results (the use of bird to describe a bird is of course not particularly interesting).
As far back as the Middle Ages, bird was used to refer to a young girl. It may stem from a confusion with burd and bride. Bird was actually used in Middle English to refer to both young people and animals. The modern use of the word, however, dates only to 1915. That is the use with which I am familiar.
Another use of bird refers to the rude gesture with the middle finger. That, interestingly, dates to the 1860s. Flipping the bird is a familiar usage, but i had no idea it had been around so long.
In Vaudeville, bird was slang for booing and hissing at someone. The use of bird in vaudeville would make it contemporaneous with the Atlantic City story.
Thus, two of the three connotations are negative.
So here is an interesting thought that goes counter to everything we think we know about the golf term birdie: Is it possible that George Crump and William Smith actually were jeering Ab Smith in the good-natured way that buddies will when a friend has one-upped them? Among my friends, if I had just hit a spectacular shot to take a bet, I might well be greeted with a “Dude, you suck” rather than a “Great shot.”
Abner Smith own account, however, doesn’t suggest this at all. In a section of the 1946 book, Fifty Years of American Golf, Smith recalled:
“My ball … came to rest within six inches of the cup. I said ‘That was a bird of a shot … I suggest that when one of us plays a hole in one under par he receives double compensation.’ The other two agreed and we began right away, just as soon as the next one came, to call it a ‘birdie.’ ”
I actually like my story better.