history and origin of the word ‘tennis’

The word tennis in its current sense is short for lawn tennis. The original form of tennis (known as real tennis to distinguish it from the later lawn tennis) was played with a solid ball on an enclosed court divided into equal but dissimilar halves, the service side (from which service was always delivered) and the hazard side (on which service was received). It was also played in the open air under the name of field tennis.

(The term real tennis was coined shortly after the introduction of lawn tennis; it is usually said that real is the adjective meaning royal, regal, but this is apparently a folk etymology, since that adjective appears to have been obsolete by the time the term was coined.)

Lawn tennis was patented in 1874 by Major Walter Clopton Wingfield (1833-1912) under the name of sphairistike, from Greek σϕαιριστική (τέχνη) (= sphairistike (tekhne)), meaning (skill) in playing at ball. The Morning Post (London) of Monday 4th May of that year published the following:

Lawn Tennis.—A new game has just been patented, called Sphairistike or Lawn Tennis, and will undoubtedly become a national pastime. It is a clever adaptation of Tennis to the exigencies of an ordinary lawn. It is adapted for people of any age and of both sexes. And as the game has much more healthy and manly excitement than croquet, the chances are it will drive that game out of the field. Tennis has long been known in England as a noble game, but the expense of erecting courts and the time required to master its intricacies have restricted it to a fortunate few. Sphairistike is placed within the reach of the majority of people, and its advent should be hailed as a public boon. Badmintus [sic], the other rival to public favour, is after all only battledore and shuttlecock over a string, whilst Sphairistike is Tennis, played in the open air, by means of a patent portable court, with Tennis bats and balls. It may be seen and played next week, on and after the opening day of the Princes Cricket Ground, and also at the Polo Club, Lillie-bridge.

And the following is from an article about “Prince’s, the new pleasure-ground in the heart of London” published in The York Herald (Yorkshire) of Thursday 18th June of the same year:

Away, on an extra lawn on the London side of the ground—away from the cricket, away from the mock ice and the real ices—away from the skirts and the bugle-embroidered bodies—from the colour, the costumes, and the fashionable crowd, they are playing “Sphairistike, or Lawn Tennis,” the new summer game which will make the name of Major Wingfield gratefully remembered in many a country house. The new game is played on a lawn, with india-rubber balls and an ordinary racket, over a net specially provided, and in a court easily marked out on any smooth turf, or indeed on any level ground. The popularity of Sphairistike is at once shown by the eagerness with which ladies as well as gentlemen desire to have a turn at it; its rules come as a matter of course to all who as boys have played rackets and fives, and it is learned in a few minutes by any lady watching the game at Prince’s.


In the form tenetz, the word tennis is first recorded in English around 1400 in In Praise of Peace, by the English poet John Gower (circa 1330-1408):

Of the tenetz to winne or lese a chace,
Mai no lif wite er that the bal be ronne.
In the [game of]
tennis, to win or lose a chase,
No man knows before the ball is run.

But the game was mentioned earlier in Italy as tenes, in Cronica di Firenze, by Donato Velluti, who died in 1370. The game is said to have been introduced into Florence by French knights in 1325. But the game and the word tenes, recorded only in Velluti’s Cronica, were not long retained. The name, opposed to Italian word-formation, was manifestly foreign. Its use in Florence long before the earliest known English example implies that both the English and the Italian names had a common foreign source: French knights introduced the game at Florence, and the earliest English forms tenetz and teneys, with their final stress, imply French origin.

The problem is that the game has apparently never borne any such name in France, where, from 1355, it has been called la paulme, la paume (because, originally, the ball was struck with the palm of the hand).

The only French word akin in form is tenez (Old French tenetz). Tenez is a conjugated form of the verb tenir, meaning to hold, also to take, receive what is offered. Tenez!, a form of the imperative mood, is used to address more than one person, or one person only in a polite manner (using the vous form). This is why it has been suggested, since the early 17th century, that the name tennis originated in the French imperative tenez!, take!, receive!, supposedly called by the server to his opponent.

But no mention of this call has been found in French, where it must have been used if taken into Italian and English.

However, in the 16th-century Colloquies of Cordier and Erasmus, the server’s call is Latinised as accipe and excipe, which mean take, receive.

And, in his 1641 pamphlet Carmen de Lvdo Pilæ Reticvlo, Bello comparato, victoria, & pace perpetua inde-ventura, a Frenchman named R. Frissart drew a parallel between a long and contested game of tennis and the war waged by the kings of France and Spain. (Frissart described himself as “the oldest of living tennis players, and, unless his vanity deceived him, the steadiest”.) He too used excipe to translate the server’s call; for example:

– Triginta habeo. Excipe. (I score thirty. Take this.)
– Mitte. (Send it.)
– Pilam
excipe. (Receive the ball.)
– Ecce pilam mitto. (I serve the ball.)
Accipio. (I take it.)

These Latin words witness to the use of tenez, or some equivalent call in French, and favour the conclusion that this call gave rise to the 14th-century Italian name and to the English name, as foreigners would naturally call the game by the word they heard regularly employed.

However, it is worth noting that, in his text, Frissart calls the game pila palmaria (pila means ball and palmaria refers to the palm) and, in the title, ludo pilæ reticulo (ludo means game and reticulo refers to the net).

The following seems to confirm that tennis and receive, catch were synonymous. In Basilikon Doron, or His Maiesties Instructions to his dearest Sonne, Henry the Prince (1603), James I wrote:

The exercises that I would haue you to vse (although but moderately, not making a craft of them) are running, leaping, wrastling, fencing, dancing, and playing at the caitch or tennise, archerie, palle maille, and such like other faire and pleasant field-games.

French in turn borrowed the English word tennis in the late 19th century, making it, from a French viewpoint, an Anglicism and (probably) a “boomerang” word.



Le Miracle de Saint Mansuy, by Jacques Callot

Jacques Callot – Le Miracle de Saint Mansuy. The game has been played in the open air. In the middle distance, there are jousts and other games.


A print by the French artist Jacques Callot (1592-1635) is called Le Miracle de Saint Mansuy. In it appears Jean Porcelet, Bishop of Toul (Meurthe) on the Moselle, representing the Saint, and followed by a prince, who is attended by his courtiers. The Saint is bringing back to life the prince’s son, who has been killed by the blow of a tennis ball. A ball lies by the boy’s side, and his racket is at his feet. He is supported by a servant, who lifts him up by the shoulders.

Because of such accidents and because the Company of Ironmongers sold tennis balls in the late 15th century, it has been absurdly suggested that tennis balls were at one time made of iron. But the facts are different. The Company of Ironmongers had their own tennis court, for which they made balls so well that they were in demand with players in other courts. And an ordinary real-tennis ball, striking a child with force on the temple, would be likely enough to cause death.

Far from being made of iron, tennis balls used to be stuffed with hair, if we are to believe the English playwright and poet William Shakespeare (1564-1616) in Much adoe about Nothing (around 1598):

(Quarto 1, 1600)
– Don Pedro: Hath any man seene him at the Barbers?

– Claudio: No, but the barbers man hath bin seene with him,
and the olde ornament of his cheeke hath already stufft tennis
– Leonato: Indeed he lookes yonger than he did, by the losse of
a beard.

Shakespeare also mentioned tennis in The Cronicle History of Henry the fift, With his battell fought at Agin Court in France. Togither with Auntient Pistoll (around 1599):

(Quarto 1, 1600)
– Henry V: Freely and with vncurbed boldnesse

Tell vs the Dolphins minde.
– First Ambassador: Then this in fine the Dolphin saith,
Whereas you clayme certaine Townes in France,
From your predecessor king Edward the third,
This he returnes.
He saith, theres nought in France that can be with a nimble
Galliard wonne: you cannot reuel into Dukedomes there:
Therefore he sendeth meeter for your study,
This tunne of treasure: and in lieu of this,
Desires to let the Dukedomes that you craue
Heare no more from you: This the Dolphin saith.
– Henry V: What treasure Vncle?
– Duke of Exeter: Tennis balles my Liege.
– Henry V: We are glad the Dolphin is so pleasant with vs,
Your message and his present we accept:
When we haue matched our rackets to these balles,
We will by Gods grace play such a set,
Shall strike his fathers crowne into the hazard.
Tell him he hath made a match with such a wrangler,
That all the Courts of France shall be disturbd with chases.

Shakespeare uses the word chase, which is also found, along with the first recorded use of tennis, in the above-mentioned passage from In Praise of Peace by John Gower. In the medieval game of tennis, chase refers to the second impact on the floor (or in a gallery) of a ball which the opponent has failed or declined to return; the value of which is determined by the nearness of the spot of impact to the end wall. The question of winning a chase at tennis is not one which is decided at once by the stroke that is made, but depends on later developments. This is because, if the opponent, on sides being changed, can better this stroke (i.e. cause his ball to rebound nearer the wall), he wins and scores it; if not, it is scored by the first player. Until it is so decided, the chase is a stroke in abeyance. In other words, in tennis as in life, the significance of a given action can be understood only in retrospect.

The metaphor used by John Gower is the first known use of the word tennis in English, but it is not the first reference to the game. The English poet Geoffrey Chaucer (circa 1343-1400) wrote, in Troilus and Criseyde:

Thow biddest me I shulde love another
Al fresshly newe, and lat Criseyde go!
It lith nat in my power, leeve brother;
And though I myght, I wolde nat do so.
But kanstow playen
raket, to and fro,
Nettle in, dok out, now this, now that, Pandare?
Now foule falle hire for thi wo that care!
You bid me let Criseyde go, and get me another fresh new love. It lies not in my power, dear friend, and even if I could I would not. Can you play at
rackets with love to and fro, in and out, now this and now that. May woe come to her who cares for your woe.

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