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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 the American Flag Displayed Backwards on Military Uniforms?
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In 1968, famed activist Abbie Hoffman decided to crash a meeting of the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington by showing up in a shirt depicting the American flag. Hoffman was quickly surrounded by police, who ripped his shirt off and arrested him for desecration of the Red, White, and Blue.

Hoffman’s arrest is notable today because, while it might be unpatriotic to some, wearing the American flag, burning it, or otherwise disrespecting it is not a violation of any federal law. In 1989, the Supreme Court ruled that it would be unconstitutional to prosecute any such action. Still, Americans have very fervent and strict attitudes toward displaying the flag, a longstanding symbol of our country’s freedom. According to the U.S. Flag Code, which was first published in 1923, you shouldn’t let the flag touch the ground or hang it upside-down. While there’s no express prohibition about reversing the image, it’s probably a safe bet you shouldn’t do that, either.

Yet branches of the U.S. military are often spotted with a seeming mirror reflection of the flag on their right shoulder. If you look at a member in profile, the canton—the rectangle with the stars—is on the right. Isn’t that backwards? Shouldn’t it look like the flag on the left shoulder?

The American flag appears on a military uniform
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Not really. The flag is actually facing forward, and it’s not an optical illusion.

When a service member marches or walks forward, they assume the position of a flagpole, with the flag sewn on their uniform meant to resemble a flag flapping in the breeze. With the canton on the right, the flag would be fluttering behind them. If it were depicted with the canton on the left, the flag would be flying backward—as though it had been hung by the stripes instead of the stars nearest to the pole. The position of the flag is noted in Army Regulation 670-1, mandating the star field should face forward. The official term for this depiction is “reverse side flag.”

As for Hoffman: His conviction was overturned on appeal. In 1970, while at a flag-themed art show in New York, he was invited to get up and speak. He wore a flag shirt for the occasion.

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 Causes Sinkholes?
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Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

This week, a sinkhole opened up on the White House lawn—likely the result of excess rainfall on the "legitimate swamp" surrounding the storied building, a geologist told The New York Times. While the event had some suggesting we call for Buffy's help, sinkholes are pretty common. In the past few days alone, cavernous maws in the earth have appeared in Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee, and of course Florida, home to more sinkholes than any other state.

Sinkholes have gulped down suburban homes, cars, and entire fields in the past. How does the ground just open up like that?

Sinkholes are a simple matter of cause and effect. Urban sinkholes may be directly traced to underground water main breaks or collapsed sewer pipelines, into which city sidewalks crumple in the absence of any structural support. In more rural areas, such catastrophes might be attributed to abandoned mine shafts or salt caverns that can't take the weight anymore. These types of sinkholes are heavily influenced by human action, but most sinkholes are unpredictable, inevitable natural occurrences.

Florida is so prone to sinkholes because it has the misfortune of being built upon a foundation of limestone—solid rock, but the kind that is easily dissolved by acidic rain or groundwater. The karst process, in which the mildly acidic water wears away at fractures in the limestone, leaves empty space where there used to be stone, and even the residue is washed away. Any loose soil, grass, or—for example—luxury condominiums perched atop the hole in the ground aren't left with much support. Just as a house built on a weak foundation is more likely to collapse, the same is true of the ground itself. Gravity eventually takes its toll, aided by natural erosion, and so the hole begins to sink.

About 10 percent of the world's landscape is composed of karst regions. Despite being common, sinkholes' unforeseeable nature serves as proof that the ground beneath our feet may not be as solid as we think.

A version of this story originally ran in 2014.

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