Release notes: tennis terms

By Matthew Bladen, Senior Editor

When work began on the Philological Society’s proposed new English dictionary in the 1850s, the modern game of tennis did not exist. At that time, ‘tennis’ referred to what we now know as real tennis or, in North America, court tennis, a ball game of French origin played since medieval times on a purpose-built roofed oblong court. This game had made its own impression on the English language and its literature: perhaps most famously, Henry V, in a scene immortalized by Shakespeare, is said to have received a mocking ‘gift’ of tennis balls from the Dauphin of France with the suggestion that playing tennis was a more suitable occupation for him than making war. Henry did not take this well. An early sixteenth-century poetic account of the Agincourt campaign has him declare that he has brought his own tennis balls, made ‘of marble and yren [iron]’, to use against the French port of Harfleur. The ensuing cannon fire is presented as though it is a game of tennis, and is scored accordingly, fifteen, thirty, forty-five*—the earliest recorded evidence for this scoring system in English—at which point the townspeople ask for parley.

*(Yes, forty-five. The origin of the tennis scoring system is disputed, but in both French and English it initially went up in fifteen-point increments. Our earliest evidence for the truncated forty comes from a late seventeenth-century manuscript. By that point, Anglophone tennis players had clearly become tired of using three syllables where two would do.)

The modern game of tennis emerged in the 1870s, as various attempts to produce an enjoyable outdoor racket sport coalesced. Major Walter Wingfield’s ‘game of sphairistike, or lawn tennis’, patented in 1874, played a crucial role in publicizing the notion of an outdoor version of tennis with a net, although its hourglass-shaped court was quickly rejected in favour of a rectangular one. The All England Croquet Club expanded its horizons to include a revised version of ‘lawn tennis’, which incorporated the real tennis scoring system, and held the first national championship in 1877 at Wimbledon. The relative difficulty of putting the ball in play successfully in this form of the game—the server having to stand on the baseline and hit the ball over the net so that it bounced in the opponent’s service box—led to players being permitted two attempts to do so: first serve and second serve are recorded for the first time in 1878, when the consequences of this rule were still being debated.

Lawn tennis received a mention in the entry for ace in the first fascicle of the New English Dictionary, published in 1884. The game was only a decade or so old at the time, and terms relating to it, such as smash for a powerful overhead volley, continued to appear as further fascicles were published. Many of these, such as backhand, deuce, fault, serve, and volley, were also used in real tennis and other racket sports, and some, such as Wingfield’s term sphairistike, have subsequently fallen out of use. Lawn tennis itself appeared as an entry in the NED fascicle published in 1902, while the entry for tennis (published in 1911) includes a sense denoting the new game, with a quotation showing that lawn tennis had been referred to simply as ‘tennis’ as early as 1888. Inevitably, though, given how recently the game had been developed, some of its terminology was omitted from the first edition of the dictionary, and many now familiar tennis terms did not emerge until after the relevant alphabetical section had been published, or  indeed after the completion of the dictionary in 1928. For example, the NED’s entry for serve was published in 1912, but the editors did not include the expression to lose one’s serve, first attested in 1890, presumably because they did not have sufficient evidence for it; the expressions to hold one’s serve and to go with serve, however, are both first attested in 1920, so could not have been included in the NED. Most of the tennis-related items that have now been added to OED Online reflect the changes and developments in the game in the twentieth century, of which the most important is professionalization.

As originally conceived, lawn tennis was a pastime for amateurs, and there were few opportunities for individual players to make money from the game. The great American player, Bill Tilden, while competing as an amateur, earned money on the side by writing newspaper articles on tennis; these provide our earliest evidence for eastern grip (1922), western grip (1922), and continental grip (1925), three of the main methods of gripping the racket handle used in tennis—semi-western grip is first attested somewhat later, in 1935. Tilden’s circumvention of the restrictions on player earnings incurred the wrath of the US Lawn Tennis Association, and in 1930 he eventually turned professional, forfeiting the right to compete in amateur-only tournaments such as Wimbledon, the French Open and the U.S. Open, and instead playing other professional players such as Fred Perry and Ellsworth Vines in a series of professional tours across the United States and Europe. This progression from amateur ‘prestige’ tournaments to professional touring was followed by other top players, and meant that there were effectively two competitive tiers in top-level tennis. Eventually this division was held to be unsustainable, and in April 1968 the open era of tennis began, when professionals were allowed to enter the British Hard Court Championships for the first time. The OED’s first record of this term comes from the following year, while the period up to April 1968 was first retroactively designated pre-open in 1970. The existence of rival professional circuits initially caused some disruption, with players from particular associations boycotting some tournaments and being excluded from others, but these problems were mostly ironed out within a few years.

The fact that professional players were now able to compete in the four most prestigious tennis tournaments, namely Wimbledon, the French Open, the U.S. Open, and the Australian Open, meant that winning these titles became even more prestigious than before. Australian player, Rod Laver, eclipsed his own feat of winning a grand slam of all four tournaments in the same year as an amateur in 1962 by doing the same as a professional in 1969, and so few players win all four even in the course of a career that a career slam is a rare and respected achievement. However, the reintroduction of tennis as an Olympic sport in 1988 meant that, every four years, it would be possible for a player to win all four tournaments and the Olympic gold medal. Since no one had managed the grand slam since Laver, you would be forgiven for thinking that a golden slam was a virtual impossibility. However, in that very year, the West German player Steffi Graf achieved the unthinkable, and became the first, and so far only, player to win all five titles in the same year.

This article provides a brief chronological overview of the way the terminology of tennis has evolved along with the sport, and how the OED has observed and recorded it. The latest update to the OED Online also includes new terms for shots, such as body serve, kick serve, inside-out; tactics and styles of play, including chip and charge, percentage tennis, power tennis; expressions reflecting the social factors behind tennis players’ success, such as tennis parent, tennis mum, tennis dad; and slang terms that have taken on a life of their own, including qualie and groundie. Possibly my favourite is bagel, which American player, Eddie Dibbs, came up with in the early 1970s for a score of 6–0 in a set, based on the bagel’s resemblance to a zero. Novak Djokovic’s recent loss to Dominic Thiem in the French Open included a set that he lost by six games to love, and this was widely reported by the BBC and the Daily Telegraph, among others as a ‘bagel’—not a usage that Major Wingfield would have countenanced, I suspect, let alone Henry V, but one which has clearly established its niche, and now finds its rightful place in the OED.