Mysteries of the Game - Part 119 January, 2018
Probably the greatest mystery in all racket games is the use of the word "Love" to indicate that the score of a player is nil.
One may suppose that less than one per cent of those who have ever handled a racket have given any thought at all to the word. It was in use when they first played any racket game, and they naturally accepted it without query as part of the racket-game language which also includes such words as "server'', "let'', "set", "hand", (though this is being slowly eliminated from the game), to mention other words which have a totally different meaning in ordinary conversation.
The mystery of "Love" has never been solved. It is several centuries old and was used to indicate its present meaning in the days of Tennis when that game became popular amongst the nobility in England in the 14th and 15th centuries. We refer, of course, not to Lawn Tennis (which is incidentally, younger than Badminton, but to what is more often known nowadays as Real Tennis, the old "Game of Kings".
Several people have come forward with theories, including even one which inserted a comma after the server's score and spelt the mysterious word with a capital letter, to imply that he was telling his lady-love that he had then notched fifteen or thirty points as the case might be. Since only me partook of the ancient game of Tennis, this can be dismissed.
The most reasonable explanation seems to be that advanced by the late Malcolm D. Whitman in his "Tennis Origins and Mysteries", published in New York in 1931. Whitman, a former American Lawn Tennis champion, was clearly a great student of his subject, a fact made clear on a very hasty reference to his book.
He considers that the most likely explanation is:-
"that the French, the earliest exponents of Court Tennis (the American name for the English Real Tennis), in marking up a zero to indicate no score, wrote the figure in an elliptical form. This figure often had the appearance of an egg, and so the French called it "l'oeuf" (the egg). It has been said that when the English learned the game from the French they heard the French calling "l'oeuf" for no score, and this sounded to them like the word "love", so they called it "love", and have continued to do so ever since".
"Love" thus came to mean "nothing" in the English language, and Whitman goes on to cite other examples of this meaning, such as "to play for love" and "not for love nor money", and so on.
The word "love" has not penetrated into sports other than racket games, all of which have adopted it, but the French "l'oeuf" undoubtedly has. Witness, for instance, the "duck's egg" in Cricket, which is, of course more often abbreviated into the simple "duck", and as such has become one of the most used terms in the game.
But the expression "duck" or "duck's egg" is not really so antiquated in Cricket, though it antedates the inventions of Badminton, Lawn Tennis and Squash Rackets.
The late G. B. Buckley, a famous Cricket archivist, has stated that the earliest reference to "egg'' to describe a player retiring without scoring, was in 1861 when "Bell's Life", a famous sporting paper of those days, in reporting the match between the Gentlemen of the Surrey Club and the Gentlemen of the Midland Counties, told its readers that "Dowson laid an egg''. A year later the same paper described a player as "retiring with a duck's egg". These are claimed as the first printed references to the expressions, though doubtless they were in use verbally before hand.
"L'oeuf" has long since departed from the French, except on the breakfast table. What a pity! It could be so much more romantic for an umpire to start a match by announcing "Premiere Manche, un Oeuf partout".
-- By Herbert A.E. Scheele, Editor - World Badminton, January 1974