Why is it called tennis?

Tennis is one of the most popular racquet sports globally. Played as both an outdoor and indoor conditions on hard, clay, grass surfaces, tennis has been played since the 12th century.


It was first played using only the palms with which the ball was struck. Hence, it was named Jeu de Paume by the French. This name was popularized between 1150 to 1200 A.D. 


It is still a mystery as to how the term “tennis” was proposed for the sport. There are many theories proposed by historians.

Tennis ball flying volley


One theory that shows strong evidence to be the basis of the word tennis dates back to early part of 13th century. French Crusaders brought a few Arabic terms to France from Egypt. The Arabic word “Rahat” means “shaped like a palm” and this is said to be the basis of the word racquet. These crusaders were know to frequently visit a city called La Ville de Tennis. This city was called Tanis by the Greeks and Tinnis by the Arabs. The city was known for its fine linen with which “esteuf” or “pila” was made. These Latin phrases refer to tennis balls. The city of Tennis sank into the sea in 1226 A.D. However, Egyptian geographers have well documented its existence.


An Italian named Donato Velluti mentions the word “tenes” in his book Cronica de Firenze which was published in 1370. It describes the time of the Battle of Altopascio, when some French knights were known to play tenes. This Battle of Altopascio was fought in 1324-25. Hence, the earliest version of the sport’s name maybe traced during this time period. However, it is vital to note that no other Italian literature during this time ever mentioned the word tenes again.


The most accepted theory suggests that the tern was derived from an Anglo-Norman term “tenez” or “tenetz” which means to hold, receive or take. All three terms can be related the act of serving in tennis. John Gower, an English poet, is first credited with the usage of the term “tenetz” in published literature. This poem of his titled “In Praise of Peace” was first published in 1399.


Some other theories suggest that the French word “tente” referring to the building inside which the sport was played might have contributed to the development of the word tennis. German words “tanz” and “tenne” meaning bounce of the ball and threshing floor respectively are also considered as one of the root words of the word tennis. Finally there is the word “tence” which means battling to and fro.


Thus there is no single concrete evidence that explains the origin of the word tennis.

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