Since Wimbledon started, tennis jargon is on everybody’s lips, which of course got my linguistic clogs grinding. There are many tennis words that are unusual when you stop and think about them. Take love, for example. In tennis, it means ‘no points’ and it’s hard to picture how this can have anything to do with amorous affection; perhaps it comes from something different altogether.
In fact, the theories are numerous. The OED suggests it originally developed from the phrase for love, with the first example recorded in 1742.
e. for love: (a) without stakes being wagered, for nothing (applied to the practice of playing a competitive game for the pleasure of playing); (b) (in extended use) for pleasure rather than profit (colloq.).
This theory seems fairly plausible: a losing sportsman could be said to play for pleasure rather than profit as, with no points, his prospects of winning might seem slim.
Cassell’s Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, on the other hand, speculates that it comes from the expression neither love nor money. As love is, then, the direct opposite of wealth, then love in tennis means nothing too.
Cassell’s Dictionary offers another possibility too, that since the game itself developed out of the French real or Royal tennis, so were the scoring terms loaned from France. The theory makes sense since deuce, used when both sides have three points, probably, although oddly, came from the French deux meaning ‘two’. Love, then, allegedly came from the French term l’oeuf which was used to denote zero due to the shape. Still, it’s more likely that the French would actually say un oeuf and now they actually say zéro anyway.
While I like the l’oeuf theory, it seems the OED’s version is the most likely. Still, this is one of those classic word stories with lots of possible answers and we might never know the right one.