Anyone for Tennis?

The beginning of Wimbledon always feels like the real start of the summer to me, regardless of how rainy and windy it is outside. I used to enjoy playing tennis in the summer as a child, and it was always enjoyable to play in the morning and then come inside when it started to rain and watch the professionals play on TV. I think I also enjoyed the aesthetics of Wimbledon, all those nice bright whites and greens, though now I’m a little put off by the whole poshness of it all. I mean, curtsying? Really? Anyway, even if I’m too busy to watch it during the day anymore, I like to keep half an eye on how things are progressing in the tournament. Did you ever notice though, that there’s one strange thing about tennis in general: why do they use such strange words for the scores?

Let’s take a quick look at some of the more straightforward tennis-related words:

  • Tennis: from the French word tenez, the plural imperative form of the verb tenir, meaning hold or take. This was originally shouted by the server to indicate to their opponent that they were about to serve. Which is quite polite really: I can’t imagine players doing that now.
  • Racquet: From the Arabic rakhat, meaning palm of the hand. Fair enough, makes sense. You might be thinking though, that I’ve misspelled racket. Well, when you’re referring to sports equipment, you can use either spelling, though racquet tends to be used more often in relation to racquetball and squash. Even though racket is more common, I prefer racquet, simply because it looks nicer. It’s got that French class to it, with the unnecessary U, and the way the C and Q are tucked in together there. Racket for me is too simple, direct, and phonetic. But of course you’re perfectly free to use which one you prefer.
  • Love: the most obvious unusual tennis term (used to refer to a score of zero, if you’re not a fan). The reasons for the use of the term are quite disputed. The most commonly-believed theory is that it comes from the French l’oeuf, meaning egg, because a zero looks like an egg. That’s certainly plausible, though there’s another school of thought that thinks it’s from the Dutch phrase iets voor lof doen, meaning to do something for honour, and not for money. The idea is that if someone’s got a score of love, they’re playing only for honour or pride, and have no chance of winning. That sounds quite plausible, except for the fact that English doesn’t tend to borrow from modern Dutch, and it’s a bit of a stretch to go from iets voor lof doen to love. A final, slightly more plausible theory is that it’s an entirely English phrase, though not too different in meaning from iets voor lof doen. This theory suggests that the player with no points is playing only for love of the game, and has no chance of winning. That sounds quite plausible too, though I still have a soft spot for the egg theory.
  • Deuce: this one might not seem too unusual if you think about it. We often use deuce to refer to pairs, so it’s perhaps not too surprising when we use the term to refer to the point when both players are at 40 points. It probably comes from the French à deux le jeu, meaning to both the game.
  • 15, 30, 40: another unusual thing about the sport is the choice of numbers used to represent the scores. One theory is that they were originally used to represent the quarter points of an hour, with 45 being simplified to 40, maybe because all those three syllables were too long to pronounce. But I’m not going to dwell too much on that. I mean, what is this?: a numbers blog?

Hopefully now you’ll enjoy Wimbledon even more now that you know a little of the history behind the sport’s terminology. And I’m happy that I went this whole article without making a new balls please innuendo.

8 thoughts on “Anyone for Tennis?

  1. I’ve always wondered about the meaning behind the words and the system used for scoring in tennis, and learning the history behind the name of the game was a fun bonus. Thanks for such an interesting post!

    Liked by 1 person

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