Sticking with our Wimbledon theme, what can be a more obvious word to look into than tennis itself? It was known in various forms such as teˈnetz from around 1400 and it was first recorded as tenes in Italian in the Cronica di Firenze by Donato Velluti. The sport was supposedly introduced into Florence by French knights as early as 1325 but its given name, tenes, seems not to have been recorded anywhere else apart from Velluti’s Cronica.

The origin is puzzling: tenes is unnatural in Italian word formation and it doesn’t seem to have stuck around there for very long. Perhaps English borrowed the term from Italian but it’s more likely that both languages, in fact, took the term from a common source. This would seem to be French, since it was the French knights who introduced the sport in Florence, but this is again a source of puzzlement since the original French name for the sport was actually la paulme, meaning ‘the palm’, from 1350 or earlier.

The most popular explanation seems to be that the word comes from the French tenez, the imperative form of tenir, meaning ‘to take’ or ‘to hold’. So, when serving, one player would shout to his opponent tenez! which would be something like ‘take that!’. The only possible problem with this is that there’s no real record of tenez being used in this way as the only records are in Latin, so there is only evidence of Latin equivalents: accipe and excipe. Fortunately, instances of these terms are abundant enough for the theory to hold water.

The story doesn’t stop there. The version of tennis that we’re all familiar with now, i.e. lawn tennis, is actually quite different from the original game. When the version was introduced in 1873, it was originally called sphairistike from Greek meaning ‘skill in playing at ball’ from the same root as sphere. Invented and named by Major Walter C. Wingfield, it was inspired by badminton and first played at a garden party in Wales. However, sphairistike was generally considered long and difficult and was soon replaced by the easier word, tennis.


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