When love means nothing!
Updated: Mar 11, 2021
Playing tennis this morning, I started to wonder how we've ended up with such strange terms as love and deuce. That got me thinking about the origins of the scoring system and of the word tennis itself, so I’ve been investigating.
The word tennis, it seems, has been used in English since the 14th century, long before tennis acquired its (roughly) current form in around 1625. It's thought to have come from the Old French word tenez, meaning hold, receive or take, a warning call from server to opponent indicating they were about to serve.
Racquet also has French origins. It's thought to have come from the French requette, meaning palm of the hand, referring to an older tennis-like game played using the hand. But it could originate from the Dutch raketsen, which itself came from the Middle French rachasser, meaning to strike (the ball) back.
And now for that strange scoring system.
Tennis evolved from a game played in medieval France in which a clock face was used to keep score. Points in the game were awarded in multiples of fifteen, with forty being short for forty-five and game being called instead of sixty.
The term deuce is used at forty-all. It's generally thought to have come from the French word deux, meaning two, as it's used when each player is two points away from winning the game. But some think it's from the expression a deux le jeu (to both is the game), meaning both players have equal scores. Interestingly, the French don't use the term deuce, preferring egalite (equality).
A score of zero in tennis is referred to as love. Dating from the 1800s, the origins of this term are a little hazy. One theory is that it arose from the French word l'oeuf, meaning egg, because the zero on a scoreboard resembled an egg! A more recent theory is that those with zero points were playing for the love of the game, despite their losing score. Apparently the French don't use this either, preferring zero.
Even if much of this is still up for dispute, it feels good to find some explanations!