Anyone for sphairistike?

With the weather forecast promising the imminent start of that perennial favourite British summer pastime, watching rain fall at Wimbledon, let’s do some tennis etymology, shall we?


The obvious starting point is actually a slightly tricky one: the most likely derivation is that it comes from the Medieval French te’netz, meaning receive, a call made by the server to the receiver at the start of each point to warn them of an incoming ball.  Although the word is French, players in Medieval France called the game jeu de paume, meaning “the game played with the palm of the hand” (suggesting the sport was originally something more like handball than modern tennis); it didn’t become known as te’netz or tennis until Italian and English monks adopted the sport and used the term to describe the game.*

A Tudor woodcut showing a real tennis match being played at Hampton Court
A real tennis match being played at Hampton Court in Tudor times.  The court is still used today, which is rather pleasing.

For a long time the word referred only to what we would now call real tennis (real here meaning royal rather than not fake), which is played on an inside court: King Henry VIII was a famous fan of the game in his younger, slimmer days.  Lawn tennis wasn’t invented until 1873, by a retired Welsh army major, Walter C. Wingfield, who wanted something new to entertain guests at his garden parties.


A copy of the original sphairistike (lawn tennis) rule book
A copy of the original sphairistike rule book

Major Wingfield called the game sphairistike, meaning skill in playing at ball in Greek – perhaps not surprisingly, the name didn’t catch on in the same way that the game did and by the following year it had become known as lawn tennis (the official name of Wimbledon is the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club).


The word racket (also sometimes spelt racquet, although that spelling is more common when referring to the equivalent item used in badminton) possibly (although by no means definitely) derives ultimately from the Arabic raha, palm of the hand – a nod to the original form of the game – via French rachette meaning simply an implement for playing tennis.


Referring to a score of zero, the word is probably a corruption of the French l’oeuf, an egg, due to the shape of the digit 0.  (Cf the cricketing term duck, also meaning a score of zero, which was probably originally duck egg.)

Six fluffy ducklings
A photo that is largely irrelevant to this blog post, but the internet needs more pictures of cute animals

Fifteen / thirty / forty

Traditionally said to come from the use of a clock to keep score in real tennis matches, with the minute hand moved forward in fifteen minute intervals for each point scored – forty was originally ‘forty five’ but was later abbreviated.  If this is where the scoring system originated – and it is a debated subject amongst tennis historians – it is almost certainly a later addition to the game, as medieval clocks only counted hours, not minutes, and therefore simply couldn’t do this sort of thing.


Meaning both players have a score of 40 in a game, the word comes from Medieval French deus, meaning two.**

In a tennis sense the word probably comes from the French phrase à deux le jeu, meaning either to both the game – i.e. both players have the same score and same chance of winning the game – or to two the game – i.e. either players needs two points to win the game.

Interestingly, although deuce is originally a French word, the modern French game doesn’t use it: the term for a score of 40-all in French is égalité, meaning equality.


A tennis ball hitting a net

Meaning that a point doesn’t count and has to be replayed – usually because a serve has hit the net before landing on the opposite side of the net, but also during play if there is a legitimate distraction to one or more players – the word let comes from an old sense of the word meaning to obstruct (cf the legal term without let or hindrance, which is pretty much the only other place the old meaning of the word is still used).


Umpire is another of those words (like orange – see my post on Colourful Language) that has fallen victim to a wandering ‘n’.  In the 14th century the word was noumper, from the Old French nonper, meaning an odd number, referring to a person who acted as an adjudicator between two others.

Gradually the initial n wandered off to do its own thing, and the word became oumpere, meaning a legal adjudicator.   As an impartial overseer of a sports match, the term didn’t come into use until the early 1700s, originally in professional wrestling before transferring to other sports.


All that, and still no sign of rain!  Next time rain stops play, how about some etymology of tennis place names: how did Wimbledon come to be both a place and a tournament, what embarrassed Flushing Meadows, and who on earth was Roland Garros?  It’s got to be better than watching rain drops, anyway!

Wimbledon tennis court and steward's umbrella through a rain-streaked window


* Apparently the game was popular amongst monks, who played the sport in the cloisters, much to the despair of their seniors: the frustrated Bishop of Exeter was moved to complain in the mid 1400s of monks playing the “evil game called tennis… In so doing they inveterately voice vain, heinous, and blasphemous words and utter senseless curses”, which suggests there were some proto-John McEnroes amongst the medieval players!
** As a mild swear word, deuce dates from the 17th century and refers to the fact that it was the lowest possible score in many dice games.  A similarity to the Latin deus, meaning God, probably helped the word gain popularity amongst blasphemously-minded curse-users.

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