linguistics and lexicography Love English

Anyone for Dennis?

© PhotoDisc / Getty ImagesNews that Wimbledon and Olympic champion Andy Murray has guest-edited a special edition of the venerable children’s comic the Beano (produced in Scotland, like Murray himself) makes me think it’s time to turn our attention away from a certain sporting competition happening on the other side of the world and focus on one that has just started in a suburb of London.

The sport of tennis, and especially its somewhat arcane scoring system, has its own specialized sublanguage which Michael Rundell discussed in a post about Wimbledon last year. The tournament at Wimbledon, with its intensely patriotic fanbase, also continues to generate new words and phrases, several of which have featured in Kerry Maxwell’s BuzzWord series. These include Murraymania and Murray Mound (formerly Henmania and Henman Hill, but sporting heroes come and go).

It was announced last week that Murray will be seeded third in this tournament, which means that he is expected to reach the semi-final but not to win. But what have seeds got to do with tennis? It’s true that the game is traditionally played on grass, as at Wimbledon, but the origin of the term has nothing to do with grass seed. Rather it seems to be a metaphor: the top players are scattered through the ranks of the competitors, just as seed is scattered or spaced out over the ground rather than being sown all in a bunch. And talking of seeds, did you know that the strawberry is the only fruit that has its seeds on the outside (technically they are not seeds, but achenes, or fruits that each contain a single seed, but where would my link be then)? Strawberries are as inseparable from Wimbledon as hats from Royal Ascot. It is commonly thought that strawberries get their name from the fact that they are traditionally grown with straw underneath to prevent them from being splashed with dirt, suppress weeds, and reduce pest damage. In fact the etymology is obscure, though it may derive from the resemblance of the berry’s external seeds (or achenes) to tiny pieces of straw. Another and perhaps more likely theory is that it derives from the plant’s habit of sending out plantlets called runners that give the plant the appearance of straying or being strewn over the ground.

And if you are wondering what any of this has to do with Dennis: as well as guest-editing the Beano, Andy Murray appears in the strip dedicated to one of the comic’s most beloved characters, a boy called Dennis the Menace who, wearing his trademark red and black striped sweater and accompanied by his faithful dog Gnasher, wreaks havoc wherever he goes. British tennis fans will be hoping that Murray can wreak havoc among the seeds of the men’s singles to triumph once again at the end of the fortnight.

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Liz Potter

Liz Potter

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