Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Anyone for sphairistike?

When Venus and Serena Williams were facing each other across the net at Wimbledon, we can be fairly sure that they didn’t say ‘tenetz!’ every time one of them prepared to serve. Yet it appears that long ago it was customary for the server to shout out this Anglo-French word (equivalent to the modern French imperative tenez), which meant ‘take this!’, and that this is the origin of the word tennis.

In those days, of course, the game in question was not our modern game of lawn tennis, but its rather grander ancestor known variously as real tennis, royal tennis, court tennis or close tennis (the latter term referring to the enclosed court in which it is played). Besides keeping lexicographers on their toes trying to cross-refer all of its different titles, this ancient form of the game is also the source of some pretty obscure terminology such as bricole (the rebound of a ball from the wall), dedans (an open gallery), hazard (the side of the court into which the ball is served), penthouse (a roofed corridor surrounding the court) and tambour (a sloping buttress).

All of these real-tennis terms are explained in The Chambers Dictionary, yet none provides quite as striking an entry as the one for sphairistike. This bizarre word is included as the name under which a certain Walter Wingfield tried to patent the new game of lawn tennis in 1874. Wingfield’s word was pronounced ‘sfee-ris-ti-ki’ and was a shortened form of the Greek phrase sphairistike techne, meaning ‘the skill of playing with a ball’. The dictionary also tells us that the game was ‘quite widely known for a time’ by this name. Indeed, had Wingfield not offered the alternative name of lawn tennis, we might have spent the recent Wimbledon fortnight hearing about ‘sphairistike balls’, ‘sphairistike rackets’ and ‘sphairistike courts’, and Andy Roddick and Roger Federer might now be experiencing a touch of ‘sphairistike elbow’ after their marathon encounter in the men’s final.

Ian Brookes

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