Dictionary.com

Tennis “Love” and the Love of Tennis

tennis, net, ball

A novice tennis fan wouldn’t be blamed for being confused about who’s winning a match—an understanding of the language of tennis scores is needed to appreciate the game! Unlike soccer, basketball, and baseball, which simply count points for every goal, basket, and run, tennis has a scoring system (and lexicon) all its own.

At the beginning of the game, when both sides have no score, the game is love-love because in tennis, love means having a score of zero or nil. One point brings a player to 15, two to 30; and three to 40. The next point wins the game, unless a complex series of tiebreakers comes into play, because in order to win a tennis match, a player must win by a margin of two.

Where did the game gets its affectionate score for zero? The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that the term might be rooted in the colloquial phrase “for love,” meaning “without stakes being wagered.” This theory reflects the sport’s long history of etiquette and sportsmanship. Others theorize that love arose from the French word for “egg,” l’oeuf, because a zero on a scoreboard resembles an egg. This is a clever claim, but it remains unsubstantiated.

Tennis might have ended up with a different name altogether. Major Walter Wingfield, who laid down the rules for modern tennis, had another name for tennis. He called it sphairistike, based on the Greek phrase “skill in playing at ball.” The word tennis most likely comes from the French word tenetz — meaning “hold!” — the imperative conjugation of the verb tenir. Etymologists hypothesize that this was an early command used in the game, but there is no firm evidence to support this.

Have you heard other theories about why love is used in tennis?

53 Comments

  1. Chris -  November 25, 2015 - 4:21 am

    Interestingly enough, no one put forward the hypothesis that is most common in my country and that is much more plausible than l’oeuf one.

    The game originated at court among gentlemen, and they had bet for every point scored and the bet was 15 pennies. The whole game was thus 60 pennies, i.e. 5 shillings – and there was from early 16th-c. the coin worth 5 shillings called, most appropriately in this context, the crown.

    So at the royal court they had games for the crown. The winner took money, the looser played for the LOVE of the game as Oxford Dictionary states.

    Reply
  2. f -  July 14, 2015 - 4:27 pm

    I’ve got no historical evidence, but it seems more reasonable to imagine a circle with a sector cut off to give it a visual direction. As noted before it can represent those specific minutes- 0, 15, 30 and 45- just by simply rotating clockwise. So there is no handle, but all the incomplete circle showing the score.
    Then its pretty simple to call the circle in the first pose, a heart representing the zero score. There is no better way to define that position as LOVE.

    Reply
  3. Julien Thévenoz -  May 21, 2015 - 12:57 am

    “Tenetz” is not a french word, at least not in modern french (maybe a few centuries ago). It is written “tenez” in our days.

    Reply
    • Dale Retter -  June 6, 2015 - 8:09 pm

      My theory is that in the early days of tennis to provide an easily set and read scoreboard, a circular disk with a large rotatable “hand” like the hand on a clock was used to show the score. This explains why the score would read 15, 30, and 45. Because these would be the clear ordinal points on the clock like disk and correspond to the well-known major minute markings on a clock. For brevity, the 45 became shortened to 40.

      Note: Unlike other theories, this clock face theory gives a logical reason for the numeric scoring system. Because the score needed to start from “0” not at 60 a red hart, shaped mark was put at the top instead of a 12 or 60. Because the hart was associated with love, instead of saying “zero”, players would say love, because the scoreboard hand was pointing to the hart symbol.

      The hearsay evidence that provides some collaboration for this theory, is that one person I shared it with claimed that they had seen a very old painting of a tennis game were there appeared to be circular clock like score boards with a red hart shaped markers at the top. Perhaps some tennis or art historians reading this might be able confirm the existence of such pictures and if they were accurate images from common tennis games. Dale

      Reply
      • -  July 9, 2015 - 6:04 am

        Could you explain what the “HART” or “the “HART shaped marker” is?
        Or did you mean the “HEART”?

        Reply
  4. John Doh -  May 12, 2014 - 10:37 am

    The origin of love in tennis scoring is obvious: One-on-one games are not much fun if the two players are mismatched, which is invariably the case when families have ‘tennis parties.’

    The English, not a people to ostensibly make others feel bad, introduced ‘love’ as a shorthand form of ‘you may be a crap tennis player, but we still love you.’

    Reply
  5. wolf tamer and tree puncher -  November 26, 2013 - 4:02 am

    My good friend Carmen’s dad plays tennis.

    Both “tenetz” (which is probably pronounced “tene,” where the e is sounded like a, or some weird thing) and “tener” come from the Latin “tenere” meaning “to hold.”

    @Paul:
    The dictionary blog people made an article about a man who tried to create a language he hoped the whole world would eventually speak – a universal language. And I don’t find anything wrong with your writing style.

    @chris:
    Cool idea. I’m not sure that’s it. Good imagination, though! I wouldn’t have thought of that. :)

    Reply
  6. Paul -  October 23, 2013 - 10:19 pm

    Wow, wat about f i rite like dis 4 u, after all its how most people communicate these day’s.. In time all languages will be one.

    Reply
  7. Silverchild -  January 22, 2011 - 2:22 pm

    The score in tennis is 15-30-40 according to the minutes it took the first players of the game to make each point – i don’t know if i say it correctly.

    Reply
  8. chris -  January 21, 2011 - 6:55 pm

    Maybe it is a ZERO. as in, At the point one persues love you start at nothing, you have nothing to lose. No where to go but up. If you are zero… Also perhaps to imply being empty, ready to be filled with love. As ones cup is empty. From the top that too looks like a zero. The passing and volley from one side to another, in lovers exhange. Language is often more artistic then people like to make it.

    Reply
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    Reply
  10. cna training -  July 14, 2010 - 9:26 am

    Wow this is a great resource.. I’m enjoying it.. good article

    Reply
  11. mcp.isabel -  July 14, 2010 - 3:36 am

    a) I recommend the reading of the poem “40 Love” by Roger Gough… Indulge yourselves :)
    b) Isn’t it curious the lack of awareness of the influences of the French language over English? If we took some steps back in time, say, about two handfuls of centuries, we’d notice this LOVEly marriage between both sides and which bore today’s English… Would you find, for instance, the way back to the root of the ‘so English’ word “very”?…

    Reply
  12. Ruth -  July 12, 2010 - 6:31 pm

    Danny, have they ever held a funeral for a dead word???? Do you go to prison if you butcher English? I’m just saying that there is no use in raking someone over the coals for this. Sometimes a person’s highly tuned skill can make them into nothing more than an overused male appendage. Have a little heart.

    Reply
  13. Mr Parrot -  July 12, 2010 - 11:40 am

    The egg reference is still in use in colloquial english. In the north of England where I live, a foolish person is often referred to as a ‘duck egg’ or a big zero!

    Reply
  14. Anne -  July 12, 2010 - 10:17 am

    The article was very interesting. I LOVE tennis!! Good debate, by the way.

    Reply
  15. Anne-Laure -  July 12, 2010 - 9:48 am

    Well, thank you to all of you. I NEVER look up at such “gossip”, but this time I did, because I am French and I played tennis. And boy I loved all those comments. It made me smile (another difficult one, I am autistic on top of ill all).
    Anne-Laure

    Reply
  16. RT -  July 12, 2010 - 9:36 am

    Keep it up, folks. I, too, am a word freak and believe, rightly or wrongly, that the l’oeuf explanation is the correct one. At least it sounds the most plausible. Most of the postings have been very interesting.

    Reply
  17. Danny -  July 12, 2010 - 9:00 am

    Ruth: Really?! That’s a bold assertion in this venue …

    Reply
  18. Ruth -  July 12, 2010 - 8:27 am

    As much as we may all appreciate words, in the end, people are more important.

    Reply
    • X -  August 19, 2015 - 3:52 pm

      Ruth, I love that you said this and you are so right. People matter more.

      Reply
  19. Tom -  July 12, 2010 - 7:37 am

    Debbie, hmm, interesting point, I’ve poked around a bit and it seems as if tenetz is indeed the correct form in Anglo-Norman, the dialect of Norman French spoken in post-invasion medieval England. But the article just says “French” without any clarification so I think it’s still fair to criticise it.

    Reply
  20. Sarah -  July 12, 2010 - 7:31 am

    I don’t mean to put a damper on this loveless debate, but “tenetz” is correct in Old French and, better still, Middle English. The error is perhaps in clarity of communication, not in spelling.

    Reply
  21. caspmct -  July 12, 2010 - 7:29 am

    wow, you all sound so tedious.

    Reply
    • Kristine -  July 13, 2015 - 6:20 pm

      caspmct, you don’t need to read the comments if it’s that tedious…

      Reply
    • X -  August 19, 2015 - 3:53 pm

      haHA!

      Reply
  22. Florizelle -  July 12, 2010 - 7:28 am

    So there’s no definite answer. How stupid. I mean, the tennis history was good but they didn’t answer the original question. The second part, at least.

    Reply
  23. tom and jerry -  July 12, 2010 - 7:18 am

    well you people are so imature.

    Reply
  24. Debbie -  July 12, 2010 - 7:18 am

    Tenetz is the middle French version of the modern “Tenez”.

    Reply
  25. Sherpa -  July 12, 2010 - 7:05 am

    Tenetz sounds more like ‘tennis’ than tenez – therefore I support the use of ‘tenetz’ over ‘tenez’ regardless of etymological right or wrong. Language was introduced for the purpose of communicating, etymology serves communication – not the other way around. Put cart behind the horse, not in front of it!

    Reply
  26. nicole -  July 12, 2010 - 4:49 am

    Who doesn’t “LOVE” the erotic screaming of a tennis match! That’s my theory…ha ha!

    Reply
  27. Robert -  July 12, 2010 - 4:48 am

    Thank you for the interesting article dictionary.com

    Reply
  28. Robert -  July 12, 2010 - 4:46 am

    By the way… Did you do a spell check with dictionary.com before submitting your comment?? (ohhh sorry double question mark……)

    Reply
  29. Robert -  July 12, 2010 - 4:44 am

    Gee Tom… Get a life! Oh yes, did anyone ever teach you that you should not start a new sentence (in your case a paragraph) with And! Bad, bad, bad English Tom!

    Reply
  30. Jan -  July 12, 2010 - 4:08 am

    I always thought it came from the Dutch word “lof”, which sounds the same and means “praise”. (praise for keeping the opponent from scoring any points yet).

    Reply
  31. Michelle Buss -  July 12, 2010 - 12:34 am

    Aren’t people critical? Get over yourselves.

    Reply
  32. noopy -  July 11, 2010 - 11:06 pm

    tenetz…
    I was blaming myself that I didn’t study French for too long…

    Reply
  33. David -  July 11, 2010 - 10:51 pm

    To Mark at 7:50:

    When Wu, Bengali, Javanese, and Punjabi have made as big a contribution to the English language as French has, I’m sure we’ll all care what you have to say about them. Furthermore, I second the desire for accuracy in spelling for a website whose purpose is, after all, orthography. I don’t feel that this is too much to ask.

    Anyway, the post was interesting. Cheers.

    Reply
  34. njwarriorprincess -  July 11, 2010 - 10:50 pm

    Mark, nothing personal, but your reverse snobbery/hypersensitivity to past attempts to help you have no place in the world of professional print/media. It IS the responsibility of the editor to check for what in fact, given this subject matter, are both pertinent and, to use r-e-a-l-l-y s-i-m-p-l-e words, bad errors. Put aside your obvious dislike of the French, clear your mind & focus on the fact that the article’s subject was in fact whether the source of two key words in tennis came from French or not. In both cases, the writer botched the French word cited, the editor missed it or didn’t even check, and both of these words are in common use (the author could’ve even found them on Altavista, for pete’s sake). Two out of two is a 100% error rate, Mark: that is a glaring rate of failure. And FYI, the “older, more formal” use of the diacritical in writing vs. is still common use unless your laptop makes it difficult (sorry, Mark, I had to do it…just had to – it’s how we hateful linguist types enjoy ourselves, but I SWEAR it still wasn’t personal). Je vous souhaite une bonne semaine ;-)

    Reply
  35. Peyton -  July 11, 2010 - 10:48 pm

    Tom, may I ask why it angers you so much that a few French words are misspelled here? It’s not an article on French spelling after all…
    And if you are so familiar to French wouldn’t you be fully aware that it is in fact not that major of a world language at all, dwindling behind thirteen others.

    Reply
  36. love-forty! -  July 11, 2010 - 9:28 pm

    i thought 0 was dumpling in tennis

    Reply
  37. Aidan Stanger -  July 11, 2010 - 9:18 pm

    The reason for the scoring system is simple enough: they used to use clock style score indicators, moving them round a quarter of the way when someone scored. Originally the positions were fifteen, thirty and forty five, but eventually the five got omitted.

    Reply
  38. Mark -  July 11, 2010 - 7:50 pm

    The above comments are precisely why I will never endeavor to learn French. “Perhaps someone with a basic knowledge of major world languages like French should write this,” sniffs Tom. Major languages like Wu, Bengali, Javanese, or Punjabi, that all have more speakers than French?
    I’d work my butt off for years and then as soon as I got there and had something interesting to say at the table everyone in the room would jump down my throat to correct my grammar.

    Reply
  39. Joe -  July 11, 2010 - 7:29 pm

    So, let’s see. The French “invented” tennis? The game starts with scores at zero all, l’ouef/l’ouef, then progresses onward to a quirky arithmetic process, that seems to be ascribed to some Englishman who may have spent too much time in the noonday sun!

    Reply
  40. Pan Pan -  July 11, 2010 - 5:45 pm

    I second Tom on the need to be accurate in the information. It would be good if dictionary.com could correct the spelling/typo of tenetz to tenez soon to avoid misleading others.

    Reply
  41. Dianna -  July 11, 2010 - 4:03 pm

    Egg in French is l’oeuf (though the older, more formal spelling l’œuf with the translingual o was common).

    Reply
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  43. Mare -  July 11, 2010 - 3:44 pm

    I researched this before since a previous PE teacher of mine told the class that she’d give extra credit to someone who’d find why ‘love’ is the term for zero in tennis. No one seemed to remember the next day… (It’s ’cause a French word that sounds close to the word “love” means “egg” and eggs have similar shapes to zeroes.)

    Reply
  44. Mujtaba Zaidi -  July 11, 2010 - 3:17 pm

    Yeah..There was no definite answer..

    Reply
  45. Tom -  July 11, 2010 - 2:46 pm

    And in the next paragraph, the imperative conjugation of tenir is tenez, not “tenetz”! That’s 1 out of 3 (slightly better than love) French words spelled correctly. Perhaps someone with a basic knowledge of major world languages like French should write this if etymologies are going to be discussed? It’s unlikely they’d let through such elementary errors.

    Reply
  46. Tom -  July 11, 2010 - 2:40 pm

    It’s spelled “l’oeuf” or “l’œuf” if you have that letter.

    Reply

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