Sunday, 28 June 2020

Errant Balls and Arrant Knaves

A few years ago, as you drove around the very south-eastern tip of Vancouver Island between two of the holes of the Victoria Golf Club, you would pass a sign that warned:

 Beware of errant golf balls

The sign has gone now — perhaps because there was not much you could do to avoid a flying golf ball heading for your windscreen — to be replaced by a less alarming warning against parking your car at the side of the road next to the course.

It always struck me as an unusual word to describe a golf ball that comes out of nowhere and strikes you or your car. It's a word more appropriate for wandering adventurers in days of chivalry, as in knights errant. I mean, it would hardly be a wandering golf ball: its trajectory is straight, if not true. Besides, it is the golfer who errs, not the ball.

But no, this is not an unusual word to describe a ball that is not driven towards the green. It seems that every golf club in the land has regulations about the problem of errant golf balls: what to do about them and how to insure against liability for the damage they cause. Who is responsible? The golfer, the club, or the victim? (Note, in this instance, the use of the Oxford comma!)

Sadly, a word that once had such romantic connotations is now used, more often than not, to describe a ball hit by an incompetent or unfortunate golfer.

More fortunate is one of my friends, Paul, who does rather well out of errant golf balls. His house backs on to the golf course and he collects the errant balls that land in his yard. Occasionally, in an act of arrant errantry, a ball breaks one of his windows, but, to their credit, the golf club replaces it.

The related word, "arrant", comes from the same root, "to err". Both of the adjectives, "errant" and "arrant", describe something that has strayed from the straight and narrow, but in the latter case, very much so, to mean "utter" or "extreme". “We are arrant knaves, all,” says Hamlet, in one of his more misanthropic moments.

To my mind, the arrant knaves in this story are the members of the board of the Victoria Golf Club who reserve this magnificent piece of land for privileged golfers, but fail to provide a footpath around the edge of the course for commoners to re-create themselves on one of the most wonderful parts of the coastline, where the straits of Georgia and Juan de Fuca meet. They would argue, of course, that walkers might be struck by errant golf balls, but I for one would take that chance.

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