14 February 2014

Love and Tennis

On this Valentine's day when love is in the air, we ponder why "love" came to mean nothing in the game of tennis.

This is one of those origins that is disputed. The two main explanations are as follows: 1) It was adapted from the phrase "to play for love of the game" (i.e. to play for nothing). 2) It represents a close sound to the French word l'oeuf, meaning 'an egg' from the the resemblance between an egg and a zero on the page. (Americans once used the term "goose egg" to mean a zero, as in a zero on an exam.)

Add to those origin possibilities this ine from the Online Guide to Traditional Games who propose that it comes from the Dutch/Flemish "lof" which means honor. Around the time that the expression came to be used, England received a wealth of immigrants from the low countries and most games were played for money. So, if a player scored no points, the phrase "omme lof spelen," meaning "played for the honor" might have been used.

I favor the French and egg theory, mostly because much of the game's formalities come from French medieval roots.

Originally, in lawn tennis using rackets scoring, a game comprised 15 aces, which could be won only by the server who remained "hand in" until the loss of a rally. Tennis scoring was adopted for the first Wimbledon Championships in 1877 and became the standard.

The origins of the 15, 30, 40 scoring system is also unclear but has medieval and French roots. One explanation is that the scoring system is based on the presence of a clock face at the end of the tennis court. A quarter move of the appropriate hand was made after each rest, with the score being called as 15, 30, or 45 as the case might be. As the hand was moved to 60, making the complete circuit, this was the game.

The term "deuce" is derived from the French "deux", an advantage of two points having to be gained.

Tennis: Origins and Mysteries

The Tennis Book: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of World Tennis

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