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The four majors in tennis are known as Grand Slams.

The "Grand" part clearly defines the prestige/size of the event but where do we get the word "Slam" from in this context?

Basic research shows that it originated perhaps in bridge/whist-type card games.

Does it carry the same history as the Scandinavian slamra for the verb "to slam"?

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4 Answers

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Etymonline dates the single word "slam" to the 1600s, but not the term "grand slam" (although they're likely connected). The entry for "grand slam":

Grand slam in bridge first recorded 1892; earlier in related card games from 1814; figurative sense of "complete success" is attested from 1920; in baseball sense from 1935.

The OED has all the same years (apart from baseball in 1953: is etymonline's a typo?).

I've antedated three of etymonline's four senses.

Related card games

I found an antedating for at least the "related card games" sense (OEDs: 1814), from The Sporting Magazine, For July 1800 (the 1814 being a revision of this):

... order which they supersede other; the highest is Grand Slam that is, undertaking to get thirteen tricks.

This is under "Rules for the Game of Cards called Boston" which it says is a "small Pamphlet, Price 6d, Gravesend, Printed by R. Pocock, and sold by Messrs. Robinsons, London" and:

The Game of Boston according to the Introduction to this little Tract was first invented by the officers of the French army in America during the late war there, and has been since introduced into this country by the officers of the Russian ships of war.

Complete success

Another antedating I found is in the context of baseball, but rather than a homerun it refers to a complete success (OEDs: 1920). From a report in the newspaper The Garden Island., July 07, 1914:

It was surely one, grand slam that the All Students baseball team put over on Kauai last Saturday, and most people have spent a lot of time since trying to figure out how it happened.

Baseball

In baseball a grand slam is a home run. The OED has it from 1953 and etymonline since 1935 (but is that a typo?). Here's Babe Ruth writing in The Evening World, August 20, 1920 (Wall St. - Final Edition - Extra):

In less than two full seasons, 1919 and 1920, my grand slams mount up to seventy. Do you know that the home run leaders of the American League ran up a total of only seventy-two in eight full seasons from 1908 to 1915, inclusive? Any more brown derbies around?

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The term Grand Slam originated in the card-playing world; according to the Online Etymology Dictionary in the 1620s. The term is now mostly confined to contract bridge. (This appears to predate the meaning of a severe blow by about fifty years).

The use in tennis and golf derives from this; a player who has won all the most important tournaments is said to have won a Grand Slam, and the tournaments that are counted for this naturally become the Grand Slam Tournaments.

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You might mention that it is specifically the bridge-playing world, in which a grand slam means taking all the tricks. Cf. "small slam," in which all but one are taken. –  Robusto Jul 5 '12 at 11:34
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@Robusto, the term is (was?) also used in whist, and also (in slightly different circumstances) in older (and defunct) card games such as triumph, but I accept your point that bridge is the only popular game that uses it (I believe whist clings on in some places). –  Brian Hooper Jul 5 '12 at 11:39
    
Thanks, Brian. But do you know how it came to be used in card games? Perhaps I didn't phrase my question too well. –  Ste Jul 5 '12 at 12:12
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Etymonline dates the card game use to before the other two uses (a severe blow and shutting a door), which makes the origin quite mysterious. –  Peter Shor Jul 5 '12 at 12:19
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Some ancillary data mostly from Webster's Second: Slam (slamm) is "an old card game associated with ruff." Ruff "is a game similar to whist and may be a the predecessor of it." Whist was earlier called whisk, "from whisking up the tricks, but later accommodated to whist from the silence observed at play." And you can (verb) slam, ruff, euchre, or be euchred. –  jitard Jul 5 '12 at 21:51
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I've always presumed this was borrowed from baseball, where a grand slam is a bases-loaded home run, which scores four runs.

There are four major championships; hence, a grand slam. If there were three or five major championships, I don't think the term would be used.

As for why slam is used in the baseball term, I suppose it's because the batter has slammed the ball over the fence.

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You slammed a shot... Nice answer. +1. –  Noah Jul 5 '12 at 10:48
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According to the Online Etymology Dictionary the use of Grand Slam for "complete success" predates the baseball usage by about 15 years; the derivation is therefore more likely to be the other way round. –  Brian Hooper Jul 5 '12 at 11:19
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@PeterShor, perhaps. I think the "fourness" is a red herring, myself, and the name became used for either an outstanding achievement, or the maximum possible achievement (as in baseball, bridge or rugby union). Rugby union's Grand Slam, with the advent of Italy, now requires five wins. –  Brian Hooper Jul 5 '12 at 12:25
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@Brian: I entirely agree. Compare hat-trick which can be precisely dated to a 19th century cricket match, when a bowler took three wickets with three balls. The term was transferred by journalists to football, (three goals in a match), and I have heard an inexperienced cricket commentator say "that's a hat-trick - if you'll excuse a footballing term". –  TimLymington Jul 5 '12 at 13:35
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@BrianHooper: I had forgotten about bridge! Nice piece of work; your answer has trumped mine, and I've upvoted yours. (I'll leave my answer here, though, I think it's become too ingrained overall in the conversation to drastically change it, or remove it.) One last comment: I think that many in the U.S. might find it awkward to use "Grand Slam" to refer to something that was not in a group of four – even if such apprehension is rooted in an etymological fallacy – but that's just a hunch on my part. –  J.R. Jul 5 '12 at 14:29
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For the usage of "slam" in cards, OED says "of obscure origin".

Does "grand slam" have some French origin, to distinguish from a "petit slam"? Now called a "small slam" of course.

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In French, the expression for card is Grand Chelem and is also the term used for the 4 major tennis tournaments. So slam definitely have a card origin. According to atilf.atilf.fr/tlf.htm Chelem is coming from the english slam. –  Xavier T. Jul 5 '12 at 16:01
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