Anyone for Take That? Weather or Not, Wimbledon Is a Fact of British Summer. but What Does It All Mean? Literally. Alexander Tulloch Has Some Answers

The Birmingham Post (England), June 26, 2004 | Go to article overview

Anyone for Take That? Weather or Not, Wimbledon Is a Fact of British Summer. but What Does It All Mean? Literally. Alexander Tulloch Has Some Answers


Byline: Alexander Tulloch

A t the mere mention of summer most of us think only of one thing: Wimbledon. And at the mere mention of Wimbledon everybody thinks of tennis. A summer without a Wimbledon tennis tournament is just about as unthinkable as fish without chips, Romeo without Juliet or the telly without Coronation Street. But where did this game that spellbinds us for a fortnight come from?

The short answer is that we don't really know. All we can say with any degree of certainty is that modern lawn tennis was developed by a certain Major Walter Wingfield in 1873. But he did not so much invent the game as develop it from a very similar game which we know was played as early as the 13th century in France. According to reliable sources this involved hitting a ball with the palm of the hand over a piece of rope much in the manner of modern volleyball players.

The same sources tell us that this game caught on pretty quickly and soon became a favourite pastime of the nobility and royalty.

In fact, by the time the game spread to England (Henry VIII is credited with inventing the overhand service) it had become so popular with royalty that the term 'royal tennis' was devised. And this is why we still talk of 'real' tennis where the word 'real' is a corruption of 'royal.' Not everyone agrees about the origin of the word tennis itself. The game was known originally in France as jeu de paume ('palm of the hand game') but this term seems to have been superseded by the habit the players had of shouting 'tenez' (take that!) as they whacked the ball at their opponent and this interjection gave the game its name. Interestingly Modern French still has the expression jouer a la paume meaning 'to play real tennis' as opposed to lawn tennis. And there is another fascinating linguistic gem here. The Arabic for the palm of the hand is raha and this is the derivation of the word 'racket.' Some people have taken this Arabic connection as an indication that the game might be of near eastern origin rather than French.

A more likely explanation is, however, that the Arabic term made its way across Moorish Spain and turned up in French originally as raquette , a kind of paddle shaped implement for stirring liquids. It is also still the modern French for a snow-shoe.

The vast majority of words associated with the game have come into English from French. Take the scoring terms for instance. 'Love' has nothing to do with possible amorous liaisons either during or after a match and is simply a corruption of the French l'oeuf literally 'an egg' ie what the zero looked like to early match officials trying to keep score with dip-in quills and ink.

And this, incidentally, is the same derivation of the cricketing term 'out for a duck' which is an abbreviated form of 'out for a duck's egg.' When the umpire calls 'deuce' signifying that one of the players has to score two points in a row to win the game he is in fact speaking pure French. Originally the full expression was a deux 'at two.' And 'umpire' is another direct borrowing from French which in turn acquired the expression from Latin. What is interesting about this word is that it is basically a mistake. …

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