The tennis season is well underway with the French Open – les Championnats Internationaux de France de Tennis – currently taking place at the Stade Roland-Garros in Paris. Since this is the only one of the four most prestigious tournaments in tennis which is held in a country where English is not the official language, we thought we’d take a closer look at the links between tennis and the French language So, if you “let” us, we’d “love” to “serve” you up this “set” of fascinating discoveries!
Of course, etymology is sometimes not an exact science in that some word origins are not 100% clear. However, we’ve done our best to investigate the words below and we’re excited to share our findings, donc c’est parti !
Let’s start with the name for “the sport of kings”. Back in 13th century France, a version of what would later become modern tennis was played in which players would hit the ball with the palm of their hand. This game was called jeu de paume in French. In this game, before hitting a shot across to their opponent, it is thought that players would shout tenez (from the verb tenir, meaning “to hold”), to let them know the point was about to be played. Over the years, tenez evolved into tennis, giving the sport its name.
A let is always an exciting moment in tennis. During a player’s serve, when the ball strikes the net and topples over onto the opponent’s side of the court, the player is given the chance to retake their serve. This is called a “let” and, due to the net’s starring role in this shot, “let” is thought to be a shortened version of the French word for net, filet.
Next on the list is the term we use when a player has not yet scored any points in a tennis game. in English, we say “love”, but don’t be tempted to use amour, the French equivalent! In French, you simply say zéro in this instance. But what is the origin of the word “love” in tennis. Believe it or not it has something to do with the oval-like shape of the zero. Back when tennis was in its early stages in France, people thought that the zero looked like an egg, or an œuf. If we add a definite article, this becomes l’oeuf, and this is said to be where “love” comes from in the English scoring system.
Our final tennis term is the word “deuce” which is used when two players have 40 points each. There are a couple of theories as to the origin of the word deuce, but one of the most likely is that it is derived from the French phrase à deux de jeu, meaning “to be two points away from winning the game”. It’s also possible that it came from the Old French word for two – deus – now deux in Modern French. Interestingly “deuce” is not used in French: instead when score reaches 40-40 this is called quarante-A. If one player then gains advantage by winning the next point but subsequently loses the following point, the score returns to 40-40. From then on “deuce” is referred to as égalité.
So now you have the perfect opportunity to practise your French further while enjoying watching – or playing – tennis. And if you’re learning another language then you can download our multilingual tennis terms cheat sheet below. According to our scorecard, that makes it jeu, set, match !
One final thing: make sure you’ve watched our Walk Talk and Learn episode which Mark filmed during his visit to the Roland Garros tournament: