From The Mavens' Word of the Day (29 Jan 2001):
I'd always assumed that both love and seed when used in sports contexts were British in origin. Not so with seed: it's home-grown American. I went hunting for early citations, and couldn't find anything better than the OED's earliest citation, from the journal _American Lawn Tennis_ of 1898: "Several years ago, it was decided to 'seed' the best players through the championship draw in handicap tournaments so that the players in each class shall be separated as far as possible one from another."
The term is a figurative extension of the 'scatter' sense of the verb. Here's the definition from The Century Dictionary (1914 revised edition): 'To cover with something thinly scattered; ornament with small and separate figures'. This edition does not contain the tennis meaning, but the 1946 printing of the 1927 edition does. In hunting for earlier citations, I tried a Boolean search with "seed" and "tournament" on the Making of America archive, and while I didn't manage to find anything useful, I did find something funny: "Lawn tennis, at which women play, is sapping, and will in the end kill, cricket, unless it has in it, like croquet, the seeds of its own death" ("England Revisited", reprinted from _Macmillan's Magazine_ in _The Living Age_, 1886).
Reply from Susumu Enomoto (Shiraokamachi - Japan)
Alison, The ultimate source of the word SEED
in sports, beginning with tennis, was not given in the above discussion. Whether right or wrong, according to the very well-researched The Language of Sport
by Considine, the expression derives from the Old English ‘saed,’ meaning in agriculture “to separate or select from a group.” This explanation, although appealing, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, since why would the originators of the expression bother to search for an obscure Old English definition (which incidentally I couldn’t find in any of my sources), when seed could just directly mean to ‘plant’ players in the right place? – it sounds like an after-the-fact etymology to me, unless, of course, Considine had some inside info that the rest of the world’s lexicographers were not privy to!
The first appearance in print of ‘seed’ in sports as a noun was in 1933 in the ‘Aldin Book of Outdoor Games’ by M. D. Lyon: “‘But why put my beloved lawners last?’ wails the Thibetan ‘seed’.”
Ken G – March 30, 2004
Reply from Ken Greenwald (Fort Collins, CO - U.S.A.)