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TWTS: In tennis, "love" won't let you win, but "let" might

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If you’ve been watching the U.S. Open tennis tournament during the last couple of weeks, you’ve probably been hearing a lot of “love” and “let.”

If you’re among those of us who know absolutely nothing about tennis, you’re probably wondering what “love” and “let” could possibly have to do with tennis.

Fortunately, Professor Anne Curzan grew up playing tennis and loves the game so much, she went to New York to see the U.S. Open Round of 16 in person. We’re in good hands.

The word “tennis” itself can be found in English as early as the beginning of the 1400s. By the late 1800s, it comes to refer to “lawn tennis,” which is what we think of as tennis today.

When you watch a tennis match, you might hear a player call “let.” This happens when a served ball hits the net but still lands in the correct service box. At this point, the person receiving the serve can yell “let,” and the person serving the ball will get a do-over.

This use of “let” goes back to an Old English verb, “let,” that meant “to hinder” or “to obstruct.” The noun form of “let” shows up by the Middle English period to refer to a hindrance or an obstruction.

“Then, I would guess, you can see how [in tennis] the net could qualify as an obstruction,” says Curzan. “If you serve [the ball] and it hits the net, you have hit that obstruction, but it still went in the court. That’s why you yell, ‘let.’”

“Love” is another term used in tennis that may seem strange to those unfamiliar with the game. For more on that, listen to the audio above.

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Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.