A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Why is tennis scoring so weird?

June 28, 1974

Dear Cecil:

I can't for the life of me figure out why tennis scoring is so screwed up. First you get fifteen, then thirty, and just when you think there's a pattern developing, the next point is called forty. I've been asking all the "experts," but they all just shrug and mumble. What do you say, Cecil?

Cecil replies:

There's a reason for everything, my dear--not necessarily a good reason, but a reason just the same. Tennis scoring has its origin in medieval numerology. The number 60 was considered to be a "good" or "complete" number back then, in about the same way you'd consider 100 to be a nice round figure today. The medieval version of tennis, therefore, was based on 60--the four points when 15, 30, 45 (which we abbreviate to 40) and 60, or game.

There's a common misconception that the equally puzzling "love," or zero, derives from the French l'oeuf, "egg," or, by extension, goose-egg or zero. Actually, it comes from the idea of playing for love, rather than money--the implication being that one who scores zero consistently can only be motivated by a true love for the game. Tennis originated in the 12th or 13th century in France, where it was called jeu de paume ("palm game"). It seems to have derived its present appellation from the French habit of called "tenez!" before serving.

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