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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
What Does the Sergeant at Arms Do?
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
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In 1981, shortly after Howard Liebengood was elected the 27th Sergeant at Arms of the United States Senate, he realized he had no idea how to address incoming president-elect Ronald Reagan on a visit. “The thought struck me that I didn't know what to call the President-elect,'' Liebengood told The New York Times in November of that year. ''Do you call him 'President-elect,' 'Governor,' or what?” (He went with “Sir.”)

It would not be the first—or last—time someone wondered what, exactly, a Sergeant at Arms (SAA) should be doing. Both the House and the Senate have their own Sergeant at Arms, and their visibility is highest during the State of the Union address. For Donald Trump’s State of the Union on January 30, the 40th Senate SAA, Frank Larkin, will escort the senators to the House Chamber, while the 36th House of Representatives SAA, Paul Irving, will introduce the president (“Mister [or Madam] Speaker, the President of the United States!”). But the job's responsibilities extend far beyond being an emcee.

The Sergeants at Arms are also their respective houses’ chief law enforcement officers. Obliging law enforcement duties means supervising their respective wings of the Capitol and making sure security is tight. The SAA has the authority to find and retrieve errant senators and representatives, to arrest or detain anyone causing disruptions (even for crimes such as bribing representatives), and to control who accesses chambers.

In a sense, they act as the government’s bouncers.

Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin escorts China's president Xi Jinping
Senat Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin (L) escorts China's president Xi Jinping during a visit to Capitol Hill.
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This is not a ceremonial task. In 1988, Senate SAA Henry Giugni led a posse of Capitol police to find, arrest, and corral Republicans missing for a Senate vote. One of them, Republican Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon, had to be carried to the Senate floor to break the filibustering over a vote on senatorial campaign finance reform.

While manhandling wayward politicians sounds fun, it’s more likely the SAAs will be spending their time on administrative tasks. As protocol officer, visits to Congress by the president or other dignitaries have to be coordinated and escorts provided; as executive officer, they provide assistance to their houses of Congress, with the Senate SAA assisting Senate offices with computers, furniture, mail processing, and other logistical support. The two SAAs also alternate serving as chairman of the Capitol Police board.

Perhaps a better question than asking what they do is pondering how they have time to do it all.

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
What Makes a Cat's Tail Puff Up When It's Scared?
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Cats wear their emotions on their tails, not their sleeves. They tap their fluffy rear appendages during relaxing naps, thrash them while tense, and hold them stiff and aloft when they’re feeling aggressive, among other behaviors. And in some scary situations (like, say, being surprised by a cucumber), a cat’s tail will actually expand, puffing up to nearly twice its volume as its owner hisses, arches its back, and flattens its ears. What does a super-sized tail signify, and how does it occur naturally without help from hairspray?

Cats with puffed tails are “basically trying to make themselves look as big as possible, and that’s because they detect a threat in the environment," Dr. Mikel Delgado, a certified cat behavior consultant who studied animal behavior and human-pet relationships as a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Mental Floss. The “threat” in question can be as major as an approaching dog or as minor as an unexpected noise. Even if a cat isn't technically in any real danger, it's still biologically wired to spring to the offensive at a moment’s notice, as it's "not quite at the top of the food chain,” Delgado says. And a big tail is reflexive feline body language for “I’m big and scary, and you wouldn't want to mess with me,” she adds.

A cat’s tail puffs when muscles in its skin (where the hair base is) contract in response to hormone signals from the stress/fight or flight system, or sympathetic nervous system. Occasionally, the hairs on a cat’s back will also puff up along with the tail. That said, not all cats swell up when a startling situation strikes. “I’ve seen some cats that seem unflappable, and they never get poofed up,” Delgado says. “My cats get puffed up pretty easily.”

In addition to cats, other animals also experience piloerection, as this phenomenon is technically called. For example, “some birds puff up when they're encountering an enemy or a threat,” Delgado says. “I think it is a universal response among animals to try to get themselves out of a [potentially dangerous] situation. Really, the idea is that you don't have to fight because if you fight, you might lose an ear or you might get an injury that could be fatal. For most animals, they’re trying to figure out how to scare another animal off without actually going fisticuffs.” In other words, hiss softly, but carry a big tail.

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