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?

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