You might think Wikipedia, the ultimate “I don't have time to think about this too seriously” resource, would have figured this one out. But in fact, it has very little to say: “Thought to be derived from the French term, “l'oeuf”, literally “the egg”, meaning nothing.” That's it for Wikipedia on this one. Now, I'm not French or anything, but since when does “the egg” mean nothing?
And don't think I'm the only one questioning Wikipedia here. As has been pointed out by at least one other tennis trivia buff: “Some people like to think that “love” is a corruption of the French “l’oeuf” (“the egg”), because the figure zero looks like an egg. But so far as I know, nobody can produce an authentic use of “l’oeuf” in this sense in French.”
This guy goes on to offer his own explanation: “Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable says that it’s probably derived from phrases like “to play for love” (i.e. to play a game for the love of playing it, and therefore for nothing in the way of stakes.) The Oxford English Dictionary seems to support this view. The word was used in English in card games like whist before it is recorded in connection with tennis.” He's citing Brewer's AND Oxford! Who can argue with that?
Finally, here's a really interesting theory: “An explanation of love is that the scoring system was copied from the game sphairistike, which was played by British officers in India during the 19th century. That game's scoring system was based on the different gun calibres of the British naval ships. When firing a salute, the ships first fired their 15-pound guns on the main deck, followed by the 30-pound guns of the middle deck, and finally by the 40-pound lower gun deck.” Maybe it's me, but I fail to see the connection between tennis and sphairistike.
My conclusion on this is – I don't care enough about the origins of the use of “love” in tennis to think about it anymore. My attempt to answer this question has degenerated into me looking at some very cute “Love Means Nothing” tennis t-shirts. As long as I end up with something to wear, I'm happy!
© Kim Selzman 2009
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