The warm weather and sunshine of summer provide the perfect setting for outdoor activities, and one of the most popular ones is today’s word. In fact, all the major tournaments for today’s word are held during the summer months – in both the Northern and Southern Hemisphere. Whether it be the original “real serving on the lawn”, or playing “table” at home in the air conditioning, though the concept of the game itself is simple, much like the skills involved in mastering the sport of tennis, there’s a lot more to the word and the history behind it than some might think.
Although the officially recognized invention of the modern game of tennis was set down in 1873, the game has quite a substantial history. Initially developed from a handball game paume (literally ‘palm’ (of your hand)), played by French knights in the 12th century, the game shared few similarities with its modern version. For example, the balls were made of wood, only palms were used to propel the ball, the courts were designed differently (oblong vs square) and hitting a ball off the walls was still considered “in play”.
When the game came to England, its terminology arrived with it. Our word tennis comes directly from the Anglo-French tenetz, which means ‘hold, receive or take’ as a command, and was derived from the Old French tenez, with the same understanding of the term. Coming directly from jeu de paume (‘game of the palm’), the term tenetz was used specifically as a call to a server from his opponent. Likely due to it being spoken numerous times during play, it’s only logical that the term would come to be associated with the game overall.
In English, the first use of our word can be found in the writings of the poet Jon Gower, who, around 1400 in his work, In Praise of Peace, muses: “In the game of tennis, to win or lose a chase, no man knows before the ball is run.”
From the origin of the game until the early 1800s, there were few subtle changes: the composition of the ball changed slightly and the palm game had transitioned from using hands to leather gloves to rackets; however, the overall understanding of the rules and the court remained the same.
The first major changes occurred when people started thinking outdoors instead of indoors. First, in the early 1860s, solicitor Harry Gem and Augurio Perera started combining elements of tennis with the Basque ball game pelota and playing it on a croquet lawn. A decade later, the Welsh inventor and British army officer Walter Clopton Wingfield designed an outdoor game called sphairistikè (meaning ‘ball-playing’ in Greek), which used a net, poles, rackets, balls, and initial rules for the game.
In order to differentiate this new game from the much-older indoor one, we begin to see our term being split into specific meanings. Mentioning the outdoor game for the first time, the British Army & Navy Gazette notes in 1874 that: “A new game has just been patented by Major Wingfield..‘Lawn Tennis’—for that is the name..is a clever adaptation of Tennis to the exigencies of an ordinary lawn.” Interestingly though, “regular (aka non-lawn, jeu de paume) tennis” only retained the generic ”tennis” name for 6 more years before being rebranded as “real tennis”, which was recorded in the 1880 book, The George Eliot Letters (which was a pseudonym for George S. Haight), which recounted on a letter written October 7th that: “Johnnie gets a game of real tennis—jeu de paume—every day.”
Of course, for those who prefer an indoor version of the real lawn tennis, there’s always table tennis (or ping-pong, if you prefer), which was first referenced in an advertisement in the 21 November, 1891 edition of The Newcastle Weekly Courant, touting: “Murton’s..indoor games… Parlour Quoits. Table Golf. Table Tennis. Table Cricket. Table Skittles. Table Bowls. Battledores. Shuttlecocks.”