If you hear someone shout “Fore!” while you’re on or near a golf course, you may want to quickly scan the skies to make sure a golf ball isn’t careening toward your head—or better yet, just duck and cover. As Golfweek explains, golfers use the interjection when an airborne shot runs the risk of hitting a fellow player or spectator.
Why they yell “Fore!” rather than “Look out!”, “Incoming!”, or some other slightly more self-evident warning boils down to tradition’s sake. And while people generally agree that the tradition began in Scotland—the birthplace of modern golf—how it began is a matter of some debate.
According to a theory endorsed by the United States Golf Association, fore is short for before or afore; and soldiers originally shouted it to alert their comrades on the front lines that they’d soon be firing from behind them. As The Irish Times reports, another (albeit less prevalent) possibility is that fore derives from “Faugh a Ballach!”—a 19th-century Irish battle cry meaning “Clear the way!”, which is now sometimes used in Irish road bowling.
But as Live Science explains, the most common origin story involves forecaddies. Basically, before a golfer took a swing, their forecaddie would run along to the general vicinity where the ball was expected to end up and watch it come down. That way, the golfers themselves wouldn’t have to waste time hunting for their balls and waste money replacing ones they never found. In this case, fore is short for forecaddie, and golfers shouted it so their forecaddies would know that the balls were headed their way.
The timing of fore’s appearance in the lexicon seems to support this theory, too. Its earliest known written instance in reference to golf, per the Oxford English Dictionary, is from 1878—a good 86 years after forecaddie (or rather fore-cadie) was first mentioned in print. That said, it is technically possible that people had been bellowing “Fore!” for decades before it made its way into writing—perhaps having borrowed it from the military—and forecaddie got its name from that practice.
[h/t Live Science]