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Love and bagels in southwest London

© Digital VisionHere in the UK, it’s Wimbledon time again. Tennis has its own vocabulary, and – as in many sublanguages – much of it consists of specialized meanings of common, everyday words (like game, set, serve, break, and advantage). But a few terms are more or less exclusive to tennis. A recent addition (so new that it hasn’t got an entry in the Macmillan Dictionary yet) is bagel, which is this week’s BuzzWord. When a player gets bagelled, they’re beaten 6–0, which means they lose a set without winning a single game. As Kerry explains, the term arises from the resemblance between a zero and the kind of bagel you eat.

This brings us to the disputed origins of love, which in tennis has nothing to do with romantic feelings but simply means ‘zero’ (Williams is leading by three games to love). A popular explanation is that this comes from the French l’oeuf, meaning ‘the egg’ – like bagel, another food-based analogy, this time comparing the shape of an egg with the number ‘0’. The OED rejects this, instead coming down in favour of the more prosaic explanation that people talked about playing tennis ‘for love’ (rather than for money or prizes) – or in other words, playing for ‘nothing’. But there is some support for the the l’oeuf  theory from the fact that the word duck is similarly used in cricket to mean a score of zero. The original version of this term was ‘a duck’s egg’ – again referencing the shape of the object – so there is independent evidence for the link between eggs and zeros.

Tennis has a complicated scoring system. According to one theory, the progression from love to fifteen to thirty then forty originates from the use of a clock face as a way of indicating how many points a player had. The hands moved from quarter-past to half-past the hour (to show 15, then 30), though it’s not clear why the next score should be 40, rather than 45. But if both players reach 40, the score is not (as expected) ’40-all’, but deuce. Deuce is also used in card games, to refer to a card with the number two on it, from the French deux (or its older form deus), meaning ‘two’. In tennis, you usually need one more point to go from ’40’ to winning the game – unless the score is deuce, in which case you have to get two (or ‘deuce’).

We can expect plenty of Murraymania, as Britain’s Andy Murray is cheered on by the home crowd. And we should be thankful that the Centre Court has a retractable roof to keep out the rain, which is as traditional a feature of Wimbledon as overpriced strawberries and cream.

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Michael Rundell


  • Thank you very much for both the bagel and love you proposed. Bagel as a verb is not in other dictionaries, either. It was a timely description.

  • Another interesting tennis term is ‘seed’, as in ‘the top seeded player’ or ‘the number 3 seed’. I admit I had never given a moment’s thought to the etymology before reading your post. If the Random House website’s account is to be believed, and I see no reason why it shouldn’t, it seems that the term is US in origin and refers to the verb meaning of ‘scatter seeds’. The post gives the following citation, taken from the OED:

    “Several years ago, it was decided to ‘seed’ the best players through the championship draw in handicap tournaments so that the players in each class shall be separated as far as possible one from another.”

    Anyway here’s hoping No. 2 seed Andy Murray can overcome No. 1 seed Novak Djokovic to lift the championship trophy for the first time…

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