It’s easy to see how someone might think the expression “teed off” is directly related to golf. After all, a tee is a small peg with a concave top for holding a golf ball for its initial drive. And indeed, when someone strikes a golf ball from a tee when starting a hole, it’s said that the golfer is teed off.
However, “teed off” is also a euphemism for making others angry, disgusted or annoyed for any number of reasons.
In fact, sometimes the euphemistic use of the phrase can be intertwined with the literal sense of the phrase to make for interesting reading such as what was found in a news article published on August 2, 1993 in the Morning Star-News in Wilmington, North Carolina. The story, from Honolulu, began with:
A golf course dispute between two foursomes over alleged delays on the tees escalated to gun shots. No one was wounded.
The title of the news story was, of course, “Teed Off Golfers Fire Gunshots.”
The News-Dispatch newspaper of Jeannette, Pennsylvania published a news article on February 26, 1971 from the UPI feed in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. The article was about famous golfer, Arnold Palmer and was entitled, “Palmer Teed Off After Shooting 3-Over-Par 75.” The story began with:
Arnold Palmer was in a blue funk. He was teed off about the golf course and the weather but most of all he was teed off at himself. Arnie had come here, to the home course of the PGA, to try, at age 41, to add his first PGA Championship to his collection of 56 other professional golf titles.
On October 25, 1956 the Baltimore Sun ran a story on the Queen Mary Ocean Liner and its possible seizure by the U.S. government for having carried 2 1/2 year old Tanya Shwastov to a foreign short. The story was entitled, “Tanya Poses Liner Threat: Queen Mary Held Possible In Case Of Child” and read in part:
Hennessy explained to the sub-committee that he guessed he was “teed-off — my first reaction was to withhold clearance.”
The St. Petersburg Times edition of March 28, 1953 published a story about Virginia-born Viscountess Lady Astor and Senator Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin. It touched upon a comment she had made while attending a party given by Senator Robert A. Taft and his wife for the President and Mrs. Eisenhower four days earlier. One newspaper editor in Wisconsin was so incensed that he suggested Lady Astor be jailed for her comments.
A few days later, at a luncheon where she spoke before 200 ladies, she vowed she would “never make a joke again” only to break that promise 15 minutes later while cutting the Red Cross Anniversary cake. The news story was entitled, “Lady Astor Tees Off On McCarthy” and began with:
With a gleam in her eye, Lady Astor described herself as “a dove of peace” yesterday — and then teed off anew on Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy, Republican of Wisconsin.
On October 7, 1952 the Calgary Herald newspaper ran a story about Illinois Governor and Democrat Adlai Stevenson, Republican Ike Eisenhower and a give-day, seven-state campaign swing he had just embarked upon. The story, entitled, “Stevenson Tees Off On Eisenhower” included this paragraph:
The Democratic presidential candidate teed off on Eisenhower, his Republican opponent, as the general moved through the Pacific Northwest engaged in a long-range verbal duel with President Truman over public power.
With comments like that, it’s easy to see that if someone “teed off” on another, the other person would have good reason to be angry or upset with that person.
So somewhere between 1953 and 1956, the expression “teed off” adopted the euphemistic term. That being said, the literal sense of the phrase is found in a set of rules for golf that was published by the Edinburgh town council in 1744. According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, the phrase “teed off” used in its literal sense was first published in 1665.