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Book: Tennis

Chapter: The Language of Tennis

DOI: 10.1558/equinox.30656


Since it was beneath the dignity of the medieval chronicler to deal with trifling subjects such as sports and games the only way to shed light on them is the analysis of traditional words used in them and which have come down to us. This is the job of historical linguistics. Well known is the dictum of Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian general who had called war a continuation of politics by other means. From linguistic analysis it appears that the medieval tournament was, as it were, a continuation of war and that competitive ball games like football or tennis were a continuation of the tournament by other means. Pivotal terms such as tennis and racket can be traced back to medieval warfare and the tournament and in particular a sub-discipline of the latter, the passage of arms. Two of the most frequently used terms in the tournament were those for attack and counterattack, namely chase and chase back. At a very early date, the northern French variants of them were adopted together with the game by the Frisians, a people settling on the coastal fringe of the German Sea. The tennis games of the Frisians are perhaps the most archaic of the whole family. They are unique in that only they do not avail themselves of the curious scoring method of all others by fifteen and must therefore be older than the beginning of the 15th century when this method was first recorded. An offshoot of them is the game of kaatsen in Belgium. The root of this word is preserved in English racket which originally denoted an implement for striking back or returning a tennis ball, and gave rise to the belief that tennis bats were strung with ‘catgut’. Incidentally, the chasing of the ball is also mirrored in the oldest word for tennis in Scottish imported from Flanders, caich. All Frisians games are also unique in that they preserved the term for the playing field, park, which in days of old was used for the wood enclosure of the tournament. At the beginning of the 17th century, the English lexicographer John Minshew had suggested that the word tennis went back to tenez! meaning ‘hold!’, a word which the French used when they struck a ball at tennis. That Minshew was right is now proved by a poem on the battle of Agincourt from the first quarter of the 15th century in which the cannons of Henry V’s army are represented as tennis players and make use of it alongside the curious scoring method by fifteens. Medieval tennis also served as a model for a children’s game known in England by the name of tip-cat. A variety of it survived in the Rhineland Palatinate until after the Second World War where it went by the name of Tennee-ui. Of course, here the first element represented French tenez! whereas the second element disclosed the secret what in the tournament as well as in the games depending on it the reply of the defending party was. It was either ui (= French oui) or wuplee (= s’il vous plait). Tennis history has been bedevilled by the secret behind the curious scoring method of the game. The most plausible explanation seems to be that it goes back to a medieval French currency since tennis was like many other games notoriously played for money. The gros denier tournois, the great penny of Tours, worth fifteen deniers may have been the gaming debt for the loss of a rally when at the same time town regulations forbade ordinary people to stake more than sixty deniers at a game. The tennis terms deuce and love are according to public opinion, above all in English speaking countries, both of French origin. The first is said to go back to the phrase à deux which means that a player is two points away from either losing or winning a game. The second is said to be based on l’œuf, the French word of egg. The first to have offered this explanation in all likelihood were English cricketers who in their game use the term duck’s egg for complete failure on the part of the batsman. However, historically as well as from the viewpoint of linguistics such an explanation is downright absurd. Against the background of other sporting terms from Dutch such as kayles and sley in the south of England it is not altogether impossible that we here have before us yet another example of this phenomenon. In Dutch, the euphemistic word for unsuccessful play was lof. If you played omme lof you played for the honour rather than for money. In the 16th century, Londoners may have heard it from players from the large Dutch community in the city and have mistaken it for English love.

Chapter Contributors

  • Heiner Gillmeister ( - hgillmeister) 'University of Bonn, retired'