In the English language, sports, for the most part, have assumed intuitive and descriptive names. The word baseball, for instance, is a compound that combines base and ball, two objects central to the game. Basketball signifies meaning by a similar logic, as does European football. Endurance sports are even more straightforward: Take swimming, running, cycling, nouns that derive simply from the actions themselves. Still others, while not completely transparent, aren’t too difficult to trace back to their roots; fencing, for example, was apparently shortened from defence (the British spelling of defense), sometime during the Renaissance.
But what about the etymology of tennis? Where and how did this word and its meaning originate?
Etymologists have batted around tennis for years—hundreds of years, actually, going back to at least 1617, when linguist John Minsheu made a claim that, in many circles, still holds water today. As the Oxford English Dictionary recounts, Minsheu argued that tennis derives from the French imperative tenez, meaning “hold,” or more aptly, “take, receive.” (Anthropologist John Fox, in his book The Ball, translates tenez more colloquially as “take heed.”) The argument goes that, sometime around the game’s medieval beginnings, in 12th-century France, tenez functioned as a sort of verbal ritual, a fair warning called out by servers to their opponents before starting a point. By and by, English speakers picked up the game and, presumably, the utterance. Whereupon, having migrated into common usage, it was, to the OED’s best knowledge, first written down as te‘netz, around 1400.
This nascent game only rudimentarily resembled present-day tennis. But more importantly for etymologists, the French didn’t call the game tenez. It was, to the monks and abbots who popularized it, jeu de paume—“the game played with the palm of the hand,” basically a form of handball. As John Fox tells it, early jeu de paume featured no nets or racquets; these wouldn’t appear until the 16th century. Rather, the game’s rules and implements would develop through years of back-and-forth within the boundaries of cloisters, covered walkways in medieval monasteries.
(Cloister sport could be a source of conflict in the medieval Church, given its austere morals. Funny enough, Fox digs up the story of an “illicit pickup tennis league,” which, in 1451, prompted an excoriating response from the Bishop of Exeter. Wrote the Bishop:
Some members of the clergy as well as of the laity…apparently have no scruples about playing a game, or rather, an evil game called “tennis” in the vernacular, in the churchyard and the above-mentioned collegiate church of St. Mary, consecrated for Christian burials…In so doing they inveterately voice vain, heinous, and blasphemous words and utter senseless curses.
“As if blaspheming weren’t enough,” Fox continues, “the rowdy monks were also accused of dismantling a wooden structure on the cloister’s penthouse roof because it got in the way of ball play.”)
But if the French knew their game not as tenez but jeu de paume—and if, in fact, they'd use jeu de paume exclusively until the advent of modern “lawn tennis,” in the late 1800s—what’s to support Minsheu’s claims? Where’s the evidence that French players actually shouted tenez during matches? Tennis-related vociferation abounds in literature. But troublesomely enough, no mention of tenez, in French, has ever been found.
In view of this, a number of linguists have offered up alternative etymologies. According to Fox, “One has argued for the game’s Arabic origins, claiming that its name refers to the ancient sunken city of Tinnis in the Nile Delta; it was famous for its fabrics, which, he guessed, could have been used to stuff balls…Another speculated that it derived from the old German word for a threshing floor, tenni, which may have at times doubled as a tennis court. Yet another thought it was an English word that came from any early version of the game played with ten players.”
Still, for most, Minsheu’s tenez-tennis connection remains compelling, primarily because tenes, Italian for tenez, is clearly documented in Donato Velluti’s work Cronica di Firenze. For in the Cronica, Velluti tells the story of some 500 French knights who visited Florence in 1325, bringing with them implements for jeu de paume, which they took to playing with the clergy. As Velluti writes, “An Italian priest played all day with them at ball, and at this time was the beginning in these parts of playing at tenes.”
And so founds Minsheu et. al.’s etymology: Introduced to the game by the French, the Italian and English would call it not handball but tennis.