Tag Archives: tennis


No matter how you try to hold things, sometimes they get out of hand. This is especially true with language. To some extent, we are all ketchepillars.

What is a ketchepillar? Is it a caterpillar covered in ketchup (or some other red fluid)? Or a caterpillar you can’t catch? Or a pillar covered in ketchup, or on a ketch? Or a pillar you can’t catch? Or… wait, pillars don’t move. Unless you’re so intoxicated that they do. Or so dizzied by change.

No, a ketchepillar is…

…actually, let’s play our way to what it is. Let’s get on the ball. Let’s get a grip on the ball. Let’s get the ball in hand. Let’s play handball. Or, perhaps, play jeu de paume, ‘game of palm’, a game that was played starting in the 1200s and 1300s in long indoor courts with a gallery on one side. (Some of these courts still exist. One is an art gallery now. Another is a theatre.) The ball was hit with the palm. That was kind of brutal and bruising, and people sometimes need their hands for other things, so they started using gloves. And then they used vaguely palm-shaped paddles on sticks. These eventually became things we would call racquets.

Once racquets came in, it wasn’t really the game of the palm, was it? It’s still called jeu de paume in some places, but another name caught on, tenez, which is French for ‘hold’, ‘receive’, or ‘take’ (second person plural, imperative in this case). That got adapted into English as tennis.

But tennis isn’t played in walled-in courts, is it? No, it moved out onto the lawn on the 1800s and got a new set of rules. Now lawn tennis is just called tennis and the original indoor tennis is called real tennis by its players, because language sometimes moves about as fast as tennis balls.

And is subject to reconstruals, too. Take the term for ‘zero’ in tennis: love. You may have heard that it comes from French l’œuf, ‘the egg’. It’s an appealing story, but it lacks historical attestation. The evidence more supports the idea that the term came from the joke that if you weren’t scoring, you were just playing for the love of the game (or of your opponent, perhaps). In which case the reconstrual is not from l’œuf to love but from love to l’œuf!

But this doesn’t take us any closer to our ketchepillar. For that, we have to go Dutch, and then go Scottish. I am not making some oblique reference to economies, either. The Flemish name for the game, way back when, was caetse-speel, where speel means ‘game’ and caetse comes from Dutch kaats ‘place where the ball falls’ – taken from a northern French word cache, it seems, which meant ‘chase’. This got dragged into English as cachespule, cachespell, caichpule, catchpule, catchpole, cachepole, cache-puyll, cachespale, cachepill, kaichspell, and just who knows what-all else!

Who knows? The Scots know. Well, they did back in the 1500s, when they called it something more like ketchepill. And from that they gave us – and the Oxford English Dictionary – the word ketchepillar, meaning ‘tennis player’. (All of the above historical info is obligingly yielded up by the OED.) In this game of lexical tennis, you don’t just hit the ball back, you change it every time you try to get a grip on it.

Of course anyone who speaks English is playing a game – an ever-changing game with shifting rules and equipment, and you can’t win unless you, too, can shift as needed, crawling like a caterpillar across a tennis court. But, then, who needs to win if you’re playing it for love?


Those of us who watch sports – especially tennis – may admit to some deep-seeded uncertainty about a particular usage. Oh, no, sorry, deep-seated uncertainty. The usage in question is when a player is referred to as, say, the fourth-seeded player. Or is that fourth-seated? Seated would make so much sense, wouldn’t it? If it’s a ranking, we tend to talk about where people sit in relation to others, so if someone is sitting in fourth place, they’re fourth-seated, no? Except no, not in this case.

The merger of unstressed /t/ and /d/ between vowels sows the seeds of confusion here: they both become not [d] but a light flap or tap of the tongue, represented in the International Phonetic Alphabet as [ɾ]. So seeded and seated sound the same for us in Canada and the US. The confusion is avoided in any version of English that keeps the /t/ crisp there – or turns it into a glottal stop, Cockney style. We could say that British dialects avoid this problematic direct competition more than North American ones do, generally.

Which is ironic, because the practice of seeding in sports tournaments originated in a desire to avoid problematic direct competitions that would eliminate important distinctions, and because, according to this 1924 quote from the Times, it was not so congenial to the British way of thinking:

This year, for the first time, the draw has been ‘seeded’; how little seeding accords with British notions may be gathered from there being no reference in the Oxford Dictionary—at any rate in the smaller one… In some countries the seeding is designed to keep the better players apart until the final stages.

Indeed, the first reference to seeding of this sort in the full-size Oxford English Dictionary is from 1898 in a periodical on American lawn tennis. So the Americans designed a way of avoiding problematic direct competitions in sports but in so doing created a problematic direct competition in language, while the British, who did not have the language problem, were more prone to the sport problem.

And what exactly is the sport problem? Well, in a multi-tiered playoff format, if there are random draws there is always the risk of the best competitors facing each other early on, resulting in early elimination of a competitor who would otherwise have a good chance at making it rather far. To avoid this, players known to be the best are seeded carefully – that is, placed with care in slots where they would be up against lesser players rather than each other. Just like carefully planting seeds in evenly spaced arrangement so that they will grow optimally, rather than simply scattering them carelessly.

This of course naturally led to a ranking of players, so that you knew who to keep apart for as long as possible and who could be put up against the best ones early on. The slots are prioritized for filling, with the best being seeded first: the first-seeded player. And so on. Thus those who hear “seated” will have to cede the point; we do not want this seed to grow into an eggcorn.

We may also note with interest that seat and seed come from similar-sounding roots all the way back from Proto-Indo-European through Proto-Germanic and into Old English and on up, but have always been different words meaning different things. And only now, after all those rounds, are they finally up against each other for an elimination round.

Thanks to Ron and Joan Callahan for suggesting today’s topic.