By Anatoly Liberman
Suggestions on the origin of tennis go back to the beginning of English etymological lexicography, and one can teach a semester-long course by using only the attempts to discover who, where, when, and why called the game this. The game of tennis is not called tennis in any other language, unless a borrowing from English is used (as happened to hockey and football among others), and some people thought this was reason enough to insist on the English origin of the word. They asked questions like: “Why should we go abroad for discovering the origin of a classic English game?” On the other hand, most researchers looked for a convincing etymon in France, though in France tennis was known as jeu de paume. As the sports historian Heiner Gillmeister observed, most writers on tennis were retired tennis players (this also holds for Julian Marshall, who brought out his book The Annals of Tennis in 1878 and who to this day remains an authority on the subject), not linguists, and could seldom deal with old texts. They did not realize that a word might be French but coined in Anglo-French, the language spoken by the aristocracy in England after the Conquest (1066), a dialect of Old French with its own sound laws, grammatical trends, and vocabulary. It hardly needs proof that tennis was an aristocratic occupation.
Another point to make is that in etymology a good deal depends on knowing the oldest attestations of the form. Shakespeare described the game in King Henry the Fifth and used a few special terms: play a set, strike into the hazard, and chace (sic). Some enthusiasts suggested that Shakespeare had been an experienced tennis player (see below on this point). However, the first documented occurrence of tennis in English goes back to 144O, more than two centuries before Shakespeare was born. The text in question is a poem by John Gower, a bilingual contemporary of Chaucer.
Attempts to guess the origin of tennis were many. For instance, German Tenne means “threshing floor;” hence presumably tennis. This improbable derivation won many hearts, and I found favorable references to it in periodicals and newspapers from England to Italy. (The Italians have always shown a lively interest in the history of tennis, because, according to an old chronicle, the game was known in Florence in the early 14th century. It may have spread to England from Italy.) The English word tense meant “bolting sieve,” and Hensleigh Wedgwood wrote: “[I]t is obvious that the operation of bolting flour would afford a most familiar image for expressing the idea of driving backwards and forwards” (he also found the verb tennis and believed that it was a variant of temse, rather than being a metaphorical derivation from the noun tennis). “The case being desperate,” Frank Chance “ventured upon a guess” that in the Middle Ages St. Denis (or Dennis) was the protector of the game. St. Dennis was beheaded, and medieval pictures liked to represent him going places with his head (an analog of a ball) in his hands. Frank Chance did not realize how strong his case was and how surprisingly often d- ~ t- alternate in names. For example, Tennyson seems to have been derived from Dennis + son. The cause of the alternation has never been explained. However, no evidence points to a connection between St. Dennis and the game. In 1881 Skeat admitted that the “real etymology is unknown.” But “if one is to guess,” he said, he would prefer Latin taenia “fillet,” “whence, perhaps, the name teni-ludium.” Later he changed his opinion. Note that among the “guessers” we find the main etymologists of the period.
Other conjectures are even less inspiring, for example: “Tennis…is the old English form of tens, the plural of ten, and as we have another closely related game called Fives, there can, it seems…, be no doubt about the origin of the word” (blessed are the etymologists who have no doubts). Here is a variation on the same theme: “[A]s the winning number of the score at the cognate games of fives and rackets was eleven, and…as each score was called an ‘ace’, so tennis might originally have been 10+1, or ten-ace…” and so on, with the result that ten-ace is an earlier form of tennis. The word teen “grief, exhaustion” is now forgotten, though its German cognate zeihen “accuse” has survived. Nothing is more natural, it was once asserted, than to trace tennis to teen and understand the name as referring to the strain the players experience. This hypothesis shatters at the fact that teen designated “mental exhaustion, vexation, grief” rather than “fatigue,” that the vowel in teen is long, and that the word was hardly ever used in the plural. And of course, there was no shortage of suggestions that tennis should be derived from German Tanz “dance,” Old French tense ~ tenis “strife,” the French place name Tennois, Greek, or Latin.
Perhaps a decisive argument for the Anglo-French derivation of tennis comes from phonetics. The word’s oldest recorded forms are teneys and tenise. The spelling presupposes stress on the second syllable, and indeed, Gower and other 15th-centruy poets pronounced the word with final stress. The proximity of tennis to some form of French tenir “to hold” is so obvious that Minsheu, the author of the first etymological dictionary of English (1617) already compared them “…’take this’, imagined [!] as a cry ejaculated by the player in serving”. One manuscript of Gower’s poem spells the word as tenetz (pronounced tenets, with stress on the final syllable). The spelling reinforces the idea that we are dealing with the imperative plural of the verb tenir. Such was Skeat’s final verdict. (As far as the ejaculation is concerned, I once wrote a post on unpronounceable words. Not too long ago, it was possible to speak about the busy intercourse between England and France and the nice erections in the northern districts of a town, while ejaculation was a neutral term for “exclamation.” Not that the meanings predominant in the modern mind were unknown: simply they were allowed to coexist with the other ones, like the nautical poop with the unsavory poop.) So much is clear; yet the development of the sense remains a puzzle.
According to Skeat, the most ancient meaning of the word that later became the name of the game was the exclamation “Take heed! Mark!” But note Minsheu’s imagined. Julian Marshall, a great believer in the English origin of tennis, observed: “That the player did ever so exclaim there is not the one tittle [sic] of evidence to prove.” The editor of Notes and Queries (January 11, 1902, p. 27) stated that tenez and take are still heard in the course of the game. Marshall, who, incidentally, was aware of the fact that Latin authors glossed tenez as acccipe and excipe “receive,” responded to the editorial comment: “I may have played in French tennis-courts more frequently, perhaps, than any other contributor to ‘N&Q,’ and I have certainly heard those exclamations many hundreds of times, but never from a server who was delivering a service, and only from a player surprised by the unlooked-for bound of a ball in one direction when he had expected it to bound in another.” He was not quite right, and corrections followed, but more importantly, as Skeat pointed out in an acid note, Marshall never succeeded in explaining what Gower’s tenetz means, unless it is an imperative plural.
The conclusion of the OED is cautious. The Century Dictionary shares Marshall’s view and goes even further: “The notion that the word is derived from O[ld] F[rench] tenez, ‘hold’ or ‘take’ (i.e. take this ball’), conjectured to be a cry of the player who serves, is purely imaginary, and it is inconsistent with the usage of the time (M[idle] E[nglish] nouns were not formed offhand from Old French imperatives).” Other dictionaries say “origin unknown” or recycle the OED, as they always do. According to Gillmeister, “the cry of warning, French tenez!, meaning ‘hold’ by which the attackers signaled their approach and which lies at the root of modern tennis” could be taken “with some confidence” for a relic of the terminology of the violent soule game (see the post on golf on soule). A missing link in our data notwithstanding, tennis is, most probably, Anglo-French. The rest is darkness.
In old days golf was played to injure the opponent rather than win the game. Tennis has also changed considerably over time. A. Holt White, obviously an expert, wrote in 1855 that no tennis player would have used the terms hazard and chaces as Shakespeare did, who “could have been no tennis player” and “knew little of the game.” But Shakespeare followed the customs of his time quite accurately. I found a statement that in the 16th century tennis balls were made of iron. If they were, tennis, like golf, was once a deadly occupation. In Act I, scene 2 of King Henry the Fifth, we hear that in answer to Henry’s claims the Dauphin sent ambassadors with a “gift,” namely a tun (that is, a barrel) of tennis balls. The king promises to turn the balls to “gun-stones” and devastate France (lines 282ff). Shakespeare borrowed Henry’s speech (which is pure folklore) from his sources, but if at any time tennis balls were made of iron or were thought to have been made of iron, his answer appears in an entirely new light. In two dozen authoritative editions of the play, not a single comment along such lines turned up, so that I will eagerly await the response of sports historians and Shakespearian scholars.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”