The Grammarphobia Blog

Tennis, anyone?

Q: Many years ago, I was flipping through a book at friends of my grandparents. It was a compendium of expressions and claimed bizarrely that “Tennis, anyone?” meant “Would you like to go for a walk in the rain?” Can you shed any light on this?

A: We doubt that “Tennis, anyone?” is—or ever was—another way of asking, “Walk in the rain, anyone?” The book you read might have suggested this as a joke, since only the most obsessive tennis obsessives are likely to play in the rain.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes the tennis expression (which has lots of variants) as “a typical entrance or exit line given to a young man in a superficial drawing-room comedy.”

The phrase is also used adjectivally to describe someone or something reminiscent of this kind of comedy (as in “He used his tennis-anyone voice”).

The OED quotes John van Druten’s book Playwright at Work (1953) on the use of the expression:

“There is no average Mr. and Mrs. Blank at all. An attempt to draw one … will lead you into the pit of emptiness, and you will emerge with something as unreal as the juveniles in plays who come in impertinently swinging tennis rackets, and when the time for their exit arrives, make it with the remark: ‘Tennis, anyone?’ ”

The first to use an equivalent expression may have been George Bernard Shaw. In his play Misalliance (1914), a rich young man says flippantly, in mid-conversation, “Anybody on for a game of tennis?”

Shaw’s line is quoted in Fred A. Shapiro’s The Yale Book of Quotations, which goes on to say that “Tennis, anyone?” later became “a catchphrase associated with drawing room comedies.”

“Humphrey Bogart is often said to have originated that phrase, but no example of its use has ever been found in the plays in which he appeared,” Shapiro writes. “The earliest example to date of ‘Tennis, anyone?’ is in the Dixon (Ill.) Evening Telegraph, 5 May 1951.”

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