Points to Consider
Despite its intricacy, the tennis scoring system has been consistent since the Victorian era.
Tennis is descended from a medieval game known as jeu de paume, which originated in 12th century France. It was originally played with the palm, but by the 16th century, rackets had been introduced. According to Wilson, tennis was highly stylized from the start because of its close link with French court pageant traditions. Over the next several decades, the game grew in popularity to the point that over 1,000 tennis courts in Paris in the 16th century. Though it was popular among royalty (Henry VIII was a prominent and ardent player, and the French revolutionaries’ tennis court oath was taken on an indoor court at Versailles), commoners and monks also liked it.
The word “love” has been used to indicate “nothing” since the 1700s and is also used in a range of different activities ranging from racquet sports to cards (including bridge and whist). But it’s also unclear how it evolved to signify this.
One popular explanation connects the derivation to the French word l’oeuf, which means egg, and refers to an entity with the same form as 0. However, according to American tennis player Malcolm D. Whitman in his 1932 book Tennis: Origins and Mysteries, there is no evidence that the French ever used l’oeuf about tennis scoring, and they didn’t write scores down, so the visual relationship wouldn’t inspire the egg comparison. If that hypothesis had held, l’oeuf would have become something sounding more like a leaf, according to Gillmeister. Latin’s above became the French boeuf and evolved into beef in English; therefore, l’oeuf would have become something sounding more like a leaf if that argument had held. Gillmeister has a different suggestion for a borrowed term. It might be derived from the Dutch or Flemish lof, which means honor, making sense if participants viewed a tennis match as combat. (“Deuce” is a clearer loan word — Deux means “two” in French — but the method or time of the change is less obvious.)