I ran across the participle stymieing, and it looked wrong, so I looked it up (for that matter, it still does—I just looked it up again to make sure). Of course, while I was at it I checked the etymology, and got quite a surprise: the familiar verb meaning ‘stand in the way of, be an obstacle to’ was originally a Scottish golf term meaning ‘obstruct a golf shot by interposing your ball,’ or in the words of the OED “To put (one’s opponent or oneself) into the position of having to negotiate a stymie; also intr. (of a ball) to intervene as a stymie.” As you can see from this, the verb comes from an earlier noun (of obscure origin): “An opponent’s ball which lies on the putting green in a line between the ball of the player and the hole he is playing for, if the distance between the balls is not less than six inches; also, the occurrence of this; often in the phrase to lay a stymie.” The first citation is:

1834 Rules of Musselburgh Golf Club in C. B. Clapcott Rules of Golf of 10 Oldest Golf Clubs (1935) 66 With regard to Stimies the ball nearest the hole if within six inches shall be lifted.

Is anybody familiar with this golf usage? The latest citation in the OED is from 1901.


  1. I know stymie as a term of golfing origin, although I didn’t know the exact definition — I thought being stymied meant finding a tree, for example, between your ball and where you want to hit it. Maybe there’s another even more obscure Scottish word for that.
    Being snookered is the equivalent, on a billiard table, of being stymied on the putting green — you can’t make a direct shot on your ball because one of your opponent’s balls is in the way. (Cue schoolboy jokes…)

  2. ignoramus says

    Oh! hell, you are in the way, must not use that word “hell” it is a bad word in polite Scotish company, Knox will have you for garters, OK
    Stick me, no in Greek, “Styxme” you say it you styx as that thing in the eye with a silent x
    just a 1st form joke.

  3. I recognize the phrase lay a stymie from Wodehouse and from his uses knew that it had its origins in golf, though I wasn’t sure exactly what it originally meant.

  4. Don’t know the golf usage, but it made me think of being “snookered” in billiards — same principle. OED mentions “stymie”:
    “Hence snooker v. (see quots.); also fig. (chiefly pass.), to place in an impossible position; to balk, ‘stymie’; snookered ppl. a., snookering vbl. n.
    1889 DRAYSON Pract. Billiards 111 If each pool ball is covered by a pyramid ball, the player is said to be ‘snookered’. 1896 W. BROADFOOT Billiards xiii. 426 If the striker is by law obliged to play on a red ball or on a coloured ball, unable to do so directly, he is said to be snookered.

  5. Golfers can no longer be snookered by others’ balls on the putting green because of a series of changes to the Rules of Golf which allow the intervening ball to be lifted (for the most part implemented in 1902 and definitively for all forms of the game in 1952) – it’s all summarised comprehensively here. The term is used here, for example, in a golfing context earlier this week (in the weaker sense of being caught behind an obstacle rather than behind another player’s ball): Unsurprisingly, this time Garrigus stayed away from the lake but his drive ended stymied behind a tree and he was forced to pitch out. When I used to play golf 30 years ago the term was commonly used and that’s how I still primarily think of it.

  6. dearieme says

    “Is anybody familiar with this golf usage?” Aye. I preferred cricket, but golf was compulsory in my family. Proper golf, mind, not trundling around on bloody milk floats.

  7. Stymie is an old golf term meaning your ball is stymied behind your opponent’s ball on the green so that you can’t shoot directly at the cup (the hole). The term is obsolete in modern golf because golfers now have to mark their balls on the green with a coin or such to move it out of the way of your opponent’s shot at the cup. Before, if your opponent’s ball was in the path of your ball, you lay a stymie.
    Snooker is a pool game. You can be stymied in billiards and snooker–that’s when you have to use “English” to either put opposite spin on your ball so that it curves around the ball you’re stymied behind–the most serious when you’re “behind the eight ball.” Another form of English is to jump your ball over the ball behind which you’re stymied.
    By the way, one of the black kids in the Little Rascals was called Stymie.
    I think I’m right since I’m seldom wrong–though when it comes to language usage I could be way wrong.
    ur fiend,

  8. Thanks to all; despite the fact that I took golf for a year in college (sport was required, and I liked the fact that you didn’t have to change clothes), my ignorance of it is almost complete.

  9. I took witchcraft in college so I wouldn’t have to change clothes.

  10. Anthony Zacharzewski says

    I’m familiar with it, my roommate in college was a golfer for Cambridge University, and their reserve golf team was (in the early 90s anyway) called the Stymies.

  11. I was a witch for Cambridge University in the early 70s.

  12. Funny — I was at Cambridge in the mid 70s and didn’t come into contact with any witches. At least not knowingly. Although as part of your witching arts, I suppose you took care to be invisible to mortal men, or whatever the Potterish term is for the non-elect. A revealed witch is a failed witch. A rusticated witch, I should say.

  13. Do witches get sent down, or are they able to ward off such unpleasantnesses?

  14. ignoramus says

    Withes were all under the willow tree wqaiting for the Punters.

  15. AJP: kindly recall that such statements, like Death Bredon’s half-uttered claim to have played for Oxford, can be checked.

  16. You’d have to check the Cambridge rolls for Crown, Cronk, Croon, Crunk, Crumb, Qrum, Kroon, Qroom, and dozens of other aliases, only one of which (at most) is correct.

  17. I wasn’t Crown in those days

  18. j. del col says

    I heard it used that way a number of times many years ago when I’d accompany my dad around the golf course. He took the blasted game far too seriously.
    IIRC, one of the Little Rascals was named Stymie.

  19. Nealogos says

    This post is so old! Haha. But I was doing some reading in Greek and ran across a word that sounded similar. I want to know what you all might think about this actually coming from the Greek word “ἵστημι” (hist-ai-mee) via the sense of “to stop, stay, check; to hold up; to stand; to stand still.” The Greek certainly sounds phonetically similar, and the meaning seems to jive quite nicely with how the word is used in English. All it would take would be one golf-playing, New Testament reading Scott to come up with using the word in such a difficult situation.

    Before you dismiss the idea, you should know that “ἵστημι” (hist-ai-mee) is the root word for both “σταυρόω” (stau-ro-o; which means “crucify”) and “σταυρός” (stau-ros; which means “cross”). Somehow I feel the mental image of seeing a golf hole with the flag sticking up could conjure images and emotions of “feeling crucified” or at the very least literally “held up” in the golfer who had to deal with such a situation. Then there is the self-sacrificing idea of having to hit your ball into the other guy’s ball, watch his go in, and watch your score suffer for it. Kind of your typical “Christ-like sacrifice” situation if you think about it.

    Then there is also the connected idea of a “hold up.” It is an old term connected to bank robberies. Hold up certainly came from hands of bank patrons being held up, but the inherent situation is also a “stymie” in the sense that bank patrons are literally “held straight up” (like a cross) and also have something stolen from right in front of their eyes.

    I know I risk sounding like the dad from “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” but if this doesn’t come from the Greek, I’d be at least surprised at how two words that sound so similar and carry so much shared inherent meaning aren’t related in some way.

  20. PlasticPaddy says

    The Dictionary of the Scots Tongue has an older word styme = to fail to see, but your idea is much less boring. It would be nice to connect German stumm, but the original idea of that word is more “finding it hard to speak”, so you would have to say that the common idea is “being obstructed” (which would relate to the supposed PIE for the German word, i.e., *stemH- (“to push, inhibit, stutter, stammer”).

  21. The Dictionary of the Scots Tongue has an older word styme = to fail to see

    My mother (born Martin Cty, KY, 1920): “It’s so dark in here I can’t see a styme.” She also would call me “cheild.”

  22. @Rodger C “My mother (born Martin Cty, KY, 1920): ‘It’s so dark in here I can’t see a styme.’ She also would call me ‘cheild.’”

    Might those usages be the result of the significant number of Scotch-Irish people who settled in Kentucky (

  23. Rodger Cunningham says

    Maxwell: No doubt. She also said “mither” when jocular. Some of these uses I suspect she lifted from ballad diction, as I never heard them in anyone’s actual speech.

  24. David Marjanović says

    *stemH- (“to push, inhibit, stutter, stammer”).

    To stem the flow of…

    (*mH > *mm is regular in Germanic under conditions I can’t look up right now. It’s part of what’s called Müller’s law.)

  25. “mither” … I never heard them in anyone’s actual speech.

    How was she pronouncing it? With a long “i”, rhyming with “writher”?

    That (verb) is still current Yorkshire/Northern English dialect; in the sense “to take care of act as a mother to”; usually with a negative connotation of complaining/being overbearing/interfering too much/worreting/chiding/moaning/scolding.

  26. “Mither” to rhyme with “slither,” which I take it is the Scots pronunciation.

    ‘WHY does your brand sae drop wi’ blude,
    Edward, Edward?
    Why does your brand sae drop wi’ blude,
    And why sae sad gang ye, O?’
    ‘O I hae kill’d my hawk sae gude,
    Mither, mither;
    O I hae kill’d my hawk sae gude,
    And I had nae mair but he, O.’

    Found that on Google after Bing would only give me a Canadian band.

  27. John Cowan says
  28. Ork. 1952 R. T. Johnston Stenwick Days (1984) 38:
    “Shae’s a film ster, mither,” explained Bella impatiently. “Shae wur in the film whit wur on in the hall the night.”

    I also like this:

    mither o’ the mawkins, the little grebe or dabchick, Podiceps ruficollis (see quot.) (Slg. 1867 Zoologist II. 905), “applied in one village, to the dabchick from its diving capabilities and the way in which it suddenly disappears when pursued” (Slg. 1885 Trans. Slg. Nat. Hist. and Archaeol. Soc. 63)

  29. I don’t know why in the post I said “The latest citation in the OED is from 1901”; it’s from 1897 (Westm. Gaz. 10 Dec. 9/3 His partner laid him a stimie).

  30. Jen in Edinburgh says

    The last citation for the specifically golfing meaning of the verb is from 1901 – Scotsman 5 Sept. 7/3 Mr. Worthington was stimied and in trying to loft, knocked Mr. Williamson’s ball into the hole – so either you were confused, or you were thinking about both versions of the golfing word.
    (You can’t keep me out of the OED…)

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