The Grammarphobia Blog

Seed catalog

Q: Why is the term “seed” used when a player is put into particular bracket in a sporting contest? Is it because the organizers try to “plant” the best players around so they don’t meet until the playoffs?

A: The Oxford English Dictionary’s entry for the sporting sense of the verb “seed” suggests that the usage evolved in the late 19th century as a tennis term.

The OED defines it as “to assign (to several of the better competitors) a position in an ordered list, so that those most highly ranked do not meet until the later stages of an elimination competition; to arrange (a draw or event) to this end.”

The verb first appeared in print in 1898, the OED says, in this passage from the magazine American Lawn Tennis:

“Several years ago, it was decided to ‘seed’ the best players through the championship draw, and this was done for two or three years.”

So the verb may have been around for several years before it was recorded in print. It obviously had staying power.

Here’s another citation, from Spalding’s Lawn Tennis Annual (1900): “It is generally advisable to ‘seed’ the draw in handicap tournaments so that the players in each class shall be separated as far as possible one from another.”

The past participle and adjective “seeded” was used for events (“Longwood is never seeded,” from 1911), as well as people (“three of the women who had been ‘seeded’ for the draw,” 1929).

The noun “seed,” meaning a seeded player, was slower to catch on. According to the OED, it was first used in print in 1933 in The Aldin Book of Outdoor Games, in a reference to “the Thibetan ‘seed.’ ”

But why “seed”? The OED doesn’t explain the connection, but we can speculate. The best players are deliberately spread around – “planted,” as you suggest – so they aren’t too close together in the early rounds.

The fact that seeding is an appropriate image explains why the term has found a place in the language of sports.

Now, of course, the term “seeded” is often used in a more general way to refer to a high-ranked team or player: “Kelly Robinson’s cover was that of a top-seeded tennis pro.”

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