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Where Did Tennis Get Its Scoring System?

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Love? 15-30...40? What's the deal with tennis scoring? There’s no shortage of theories. Here are a few of them, along with input from sportscaster and former tennis pro Mary Carillo (pictured above with Rafael Nadal after his win in last night's U.S. Open men's final).

Love

You know how sometimes when a team in any sport comes up empty-handed on points, it’s said that there was a big ol’ goose egg on the scoreboard? Some people believe that a similar French expression is the reason zero points is called “love” in tennis. L’oeuf is French for “egg,” you see, so the thought is that over the years, we’ve slowly butchered the pronunciation into “love.”

Carillo agrees: “It’s the goose egg, exactly. Most tennis historians believe the French translation of ‘egg’ is probably the most likely theory.”

There's a less popular theory that we’ve managed to twist the Dutch or Flemish word “lof,” meaning “honor.” The idea is that the player with zero points is simply playing for honor—because he or she certainly isn’t playing for a win. But that’s not all the Dutch have up their sleeves: one more possibility stems from the lof in the phrase “iets voor lof doen,” which means to do something for praise.

The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that love really does mean “love.” The only thing keeping a scoreless player on the court is the love of the game.

A final “love” theory that doesn’t involve any kind of mistranslation or mispronunciation at all: When both players start at zero points and no one is winning or losing, they still have love for each other.

The 15-30-40 scoring

Now that “love” is as clear as mud, let’s figure out why tennis is scored in what appears to be a completely random jumble of numbers. Before there was tennis, there was a French game called jeu de paume (“palm game”) that was very similar to tennis, but players used their hands instead of a racquet. The scoring system we use for tennis today was based on jeu de paume’s system, but the reason for that 15-30-40-Game scoring is still a little shaky. There are three possibilities. First is the theory that, back in the pre-Revolution days, the 1000-plus jeu de paume courts in French were 90 feet total, 45 per side. Upon scoring, the server got to move up 15 feet. Another score meant another 15-foot scoot forward. Since a third score would put the server right at the net, 10 feet was the last bump forward.

If you’ve ever noticed the scoring system’s similarity to a clock face, you’re not alone. “That’s the theory I think is most common—that you’re just playing your way around the clock,” Carillo said. It makes even more sense when you know that in medieval numerology, the number 60 was considered a nice, round number, the way 100 is a satisfying set of digits today.

Finally, the Europeans were preoccupied with astronomy and sextant (one-sixth of a circle), which is 60 degrees, so they may have scored the game around the completion of a perfect circle. From the United States Tennis Association Official Encyclopedia of Tennis:

"In early records of the game in France, sets were played to four games. Since sixty degrees make a full circle when multiplied by six, it is thought that matches were six sets of four games each. Therefore, each point was worth fifteen degrees, or points, contributing to the whole. The game concluded when one player completed a full circle of 360 degrees."

Whichever one of these is the correct answer, it’s generally agreed that scoring used to be exactly what any logical person thinks it should be: 15, 30, 45, 60 (game). Over time, we’ve adapted 45 to 40 because it’s more clearly understood when yelled out on a court; “forty” can’t be confused with any other number.

Seinfeld's Theory

One of Carillo’s favorite scoring theories is not one you’ll find in history books. “I actually love the Seinfeld scoring system,” she told us. In typical Jerry Seinfeld fashion, he speculates that the points are awarded simply because playing tennis is just so damn hot:

Whatever the real reasons for the scoring system are, one thing's for certain: Tennis wouldn’t be tennis without the unique point tally. “I happen to love the scoring system,” Carillo said. “Because of it, you have games like the one that was won in 21 minutes [on Saturday], when Novak Djokovic won the semifinal against Stanislas Wawrinka. It was thrilling, it was absolutely thrilling. There was a standing ovation. As weird as the scoring system is, it just creates great tension and tactics in every game.”

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Big Questions
Why Is a Pineapple Called a Pineapple?
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by James Hunt

Ask an English-speaking person whether they've heard of a pineapple, and you'll probably receive little more than a puzzled look. Surely, every schoolchild has heard of this distinctive tropical fruit—if not in its capacity as produce, then as a dessert ring, or smoothie ingredient, or essential component of a Hawaiian pizza.

But ask an English-speaking person if they've ever heard of the ananas fruit and you'll probably get similarly puzzled looks, but for the opposite reason. The average English speaker has no clue what an ananas is—even though it's the name given to the pineapple in almost every other major global language.

In Arabic, German, French, Dutch, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Swedish, Turkish—even in Latin and Esperanto—the pineapple is known as an ananas, give or take local variations in the alphabet and accents. In the languages where it isn't, it's often because the word has been imported from English, such as in the case of the Japanese パイナップル (painappuru) and the Welsh pinafel.

So how is it that English managed to pick the wrong side in this fight so spectacularly? Would not a pineapple, by any other name, taste as weird and tingly?

To figure out where things went wrong for English as a language, we have to go back and look at how Europeans first encountered the fruit in question, which is native to South America. It was first catalogued by Columbus's expedition to Guadeloupe in 1493, and they called it piña de Indes, meaning "pine of the Indians"—not because the plant resembled a pine tree (it doesn't) but because they thought the fruit looked like a pine cone (umm, ... it still doesn't. But you can sort of see it.)

Columbus was on a Spanish mission and, dutifully, the Spanish still use the shortened form piñas to describe the fruit. But almost every other European language (including Portuguese, Columbus's native tongue) decided to stick with the name given to the fruit by the indigenous Tupí people of South America: ananas, which means "excellent fruit."

According to etymological sources, the English word pineapple was first applied to the fruit in 1664, but that didn't end the great pineapple versus ananas debate. Even as late as the 19th century, there are examples of both forms in concurrent use within the English language; for example, in the title of Thomas Baldwin's Short Practical Directions For The Culture Of The Ananas; Or Pine Apple Plant, which was published in 1813.

So given that we knew what both words meant, why didn't English speakers just let go of this illogical and unhelpful linguistic distinction? The ultimate reason may be: We just think our own language is better than everyone else's.

You see, pineapple was already an English word before it was applied to the fruit. First used in 1398, it was originally used to describe what we now call pine cones. Hilariously, the term pine cones wasn't recorded until 1694, suggesting that the application of pineapple to the ananas fruit probably meant that people had to find an alternative to avoid confusion. And while ananas hung around on the periphery of the language for a time, when given a choice between using a local word and a foreign, imported one, the English went with the former so often that the latter essentially died out.

Of course, it's not too late to change our minds. If you want to ask for ananas the next time you order a pizza, give it a try (though we can't say what you'd up with as a result).

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Why Do They Build Oil Rigs in the Middle of the Ocean?
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Ryan Carlyle:

We put the rigs where the oil is!

There aren’t any rigs in the “middle” of the ocean, but it is fairly common to find major oilfields over 150 km off the coast. This happens because:

  • Shallow seas often had the correct conditions for oil formation millions of years ago. Specifically, something like an algae bloom has to die and sink into oxygen-free conditions on the sea floor, then that organic material gets buried and converted to rock over geologic time.
  • The continental shelf downstream of a major river delta is a great place for deposition of loose, sandy sediments that make good oil reservoir rocks.

These two types of rock—organic-rich source rock and permeable reservoir rock—must be deposited in the correct order in the same place for there to be economically viable oil reservoirs. Sometimes, we find ancient shallow seas (or lakes) on dry land. Sometimes, we find them underneath modern seas. In that latter case, you get underwater oil and offshore oil rigs.

In the “middle” of the ocean, the seafloor is primarily basaltic crust generated by volcanic activity at the mid-ocean ridge. There’s no source of sufficient organic material for oil source rock or high-permeability sandstone for reservoir rock. So there is no oil. Which is fine, because the water is too deep to be very practical to drill on the sea floor anyway. (Possible, but not practical.)

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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