Rub of the green
This phrase is often deployed to explain some piece of bad luck, often in the game of golf, where the player has managed to miss what seemed to the bystander a regulation put. The ball hit an unseen obstacle or took a diversion but, hey, that’s the rub of the green, they might say phlegmatically.
The key to our understanding the origin of this phrase lies in the word, rub. Rub, as a verb, appeared in Chaucer’s Merchant’s Tale with the meaning that we attribute to it today, smoothing, “He rubbed her upon her tender face”. In Middle English a rubstone was a synonym for a whetstone, presumably because its purpose was to smooth a surface.
But rub makes an appearance as a noun in the late 16th century in the gloriously titled The Paine of Pleasure published in 1580 and attributed to Anthony Munday. In describing the delights and tribulation of playing a game of bowls, the fourteenth pleasure, he wrote, “How some delight to see a round bowl run/ smoothly away, until he catch a rub:/ then hold thy bias, if that cast were won/ the game were up as sure then as a club”. Rub is clearly being used as some kind of imperfection in the bowling green, an obstacle or impediment to a true lie.
Shortly afterwards, in 1586 to be precise, it made another appearance, this time in Hooker’s History of Ireland and its usage is metaphorical, “whereby appeareth how dangerous it is to be a rub, when a king is disposed to sweep an alley”. Perhaps the most famous usage of rub in a metaphorical sense is to be found in Shakepeare’s famous to be or not to be soliloquy in Hamlet. “To die – to sleep/ to sleep – perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub!/ For in that sleep of death what dreams may come/ when we have shuffled off this mortal coil,/ must give us pause”.
Interestingly, the expression ay, there’s the rub did not appear in the First Quarto of 1603, although some scholars view the text as unreliable, but it made an appearance in the Second Quarto (1604) and the First Folio (1624). Ay, though, was written as I and appeared in this format well into the 17th century, probably owing its origin to the use of the first person pronoun as a form of assent. Be that as it may, Shakespeare uses rub to mean an obstacle or a form of hindrance.
The long walk ruined, to echo Mark Twain’s glorious description of golf, is particularly prone to be subject to the lie of the land or the rub of the green. We find it used in a golfing context in 1812 in the rule book of the game issued by the Royal and Ancient club in St Andrews, “whatever happens to a Ball by accident must be reckoned a Rub of the green”. The phrase can be used to describe a piece of good fortune – a lucky in-off or a wayward shot being diverted back on course by an imperfection in the topography – as well as ill fortune.
In a sporting context, its origin is from the game of bowls, not golf. Nowadays we use the term in a general context as well as in a narrow sporting context, to explain an unexpected or unanticipated outcome.
So now we know!