Good Questions: Love counts for nothing

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The Independent Culture
DO BEES have knees? If so, what's so wonderful about them? (Peter Bennett, London NW3)

Bees do have knees, but since they have no kneecaps, they might more properly be called elbows. According to Anatomy and Physiology of the Honeybee by R E Snodgrass, the bee's leg is highly articulated, with the basal joint joined at the body to the coxal process of the sternum, and below to the lower end of the trochantin, or knob of the sternum. The next joint is the trochanter, before we finally come to the femur, tibia and tarsus, the last of which comprises five smaller joints.

200 years ago, bees' knees occurred only in the expression 'no bigger than a bee's knee'. A century later, it was 'as weak as a bee's knees'. Only in the 1920s did bees' knees become anything good, although not as excellent - as Lord Montgomery pointed out in 1958 - as the cat's whiskers.

B A Phythian, in his Concise Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, blames such expressions on the high regard for convention- breaking among the bright young things of America in the Twenties.

The Dictionary of Phrase and Allusion, compiled by Nigel Rees, lists a number of similar expressions of varying degrees of improbability, including: the cat's pyjamas, miaow, eyebrows, ankles, tonsils, adenoids, galoshes, cufflinks or roller- skates as well as the snake's hips, the clam's garter, the eel's ankle, the flea's eyebrows, the canary's tusks, the leopard's stripes, the sardine's whiskers, the pig's wings and, as S B Flexner put it in I Hear America Talking, 'just about any combination of animal, fish or fowl with a part of the body or clothing that was inappropriate for it.'

'The bee's knees' appears to have survived the other expressions thanks to its earlier independent existence, and through what Phythian calls 'an engaging idiocy reinforced by rhyme'.

With Wimbledon looming, I wondered if you could explain the origins of the quaint scoring system and terminology such as 'love', 'deuce' and 'tie- break'. To take a more intelligent interest in the matches, I look to you for enlightenment. (John Whigham, Dulwich, London)

Lawn tennis was born on 23 February 1874, when Major Walter Wingfield took out a patent for a game with the catchy title of 'Sphairistike', an outdoor version of real (or royal) tennis. The game became popular, although its name was quickly changed to lawn tennis. The scoring system was taken directly from the older game, but here opinions differ.

One theory is that real tennis, at its most popular in 16th- and 17th-century France, was often accompanied by betting, with a stake of 60 sous popular for the entire game. Each point thus became worth 15. That, however, ignores the quesion of how they scored before people started betting.

More plausible is the explanation that scoring was based on the clock. Indeed, early courts in France are said to have points marked off on clock-faces at 15, 30 and 45 minutes. The score of 45 was later diminished to 40, presumably because quarante, when compared with the monosyllabic quinze and trente, was already long enough without having an additional cinq on the end.

There are two theories for each of 'love' and 'deuce' too. One idea links 'love' to the 'duck' in cricket, which was originally 'duck egg', related to the shape of the zero on the score card, which was first recorded in 1868. 'Love', they say, comes from an egg of a different culture, the French oeuf. The weakness of that theory is the lack of evidence that the French used oeuf in scoring. Other sources suggest a connection with the phrase 'playing for love' (rather than money). In either case, love equates with nothing on the score-sheet.

'Deuce' certainly has connections with the French deux, although whether it is deux a gagner, reflecting the two points needed to win, or a deux, reflecting the equality of both scores, is unclear. Since, in real tennis, a score of 5-5 was called 'deuce' even when only one more game was needed for victory, we incline towards the a deux version.

The word ''tennis' itself also has a French origin from the call of 'tenez', uttered by the server as a warning to the receiver. Even here we have a more fanciful theory: from the Arab word tanaz, meaning 'leap' - which is what the players do about the court.

There is no dispute about tie-breaks, which break ties. As the Times opined in 1970: 'In principle, the tie-break is an undesirable expedient, but there is a case for it in indoor tournaments confined to one court.'

Finally, Wimbledon watchers may enjoy recalling the comment of Queen Min of Korea when she and King Kojong were watching the first exhibition match of tennis played in their country on the courts of the British Legation. 'These Englishmen are becoming very hot,' she said. 'Why do they not have their servants do it?'

Why are elections in England always held on Thursdays? Has it always been Thursday? Does any other country hold elections on a Thursday? (Terry O'Connor, Sissinghurst, Kent)

Britain, Denmark, Ireland and the Netherlands all voted last Thursday, while the rest of the EU waited until yesterday. In UK general elections, Thursday voting seems customary rather than mandatory, as it allows the weekend for counting votes.

In the early years of this century, elections were often spread over several days. The last general election not to be held on a Thursday was that of 1931, held on Tuesday 27 October.

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