Wednesday, 19 August 2020

The Origin of “Checkmate”

The Origin of “Checkmate” by Omar Cherif, One Lucky Soul

After a six-week hiatus from publishing anything on One Lucky Soul, spent working on re-editing my book, we are back with another linguistic story of origin.

Following earlier articles in the same series, such as
The Difference Between Mandarin, Tangerine, and Clementine, The Real Origin of “It Will Cost You an Arm and a Leg”, Words With Italian Origin That Are Still Used Today In Egypt, and The Origin of ‘Wishbone’ and the “Yadas - Fi bali” (يدس - في بالي) Game, this is the etymology of
the chess term “Checkmate”.

According to the
Barnhart Etymological Dictionary, the origin of “Checkmate” — and other chess-like games — comes from Old French “eschec mat” (Modern French échec et mat); from Arabic (شاه مات); as an alteration of the Persian phrase (شاه مات) “shāh māt”, “the king is helpless”. In Spanish it is “Jaque y mate” and in Italian “Scacco-matto”, which were borrowed from Arabs since it was through them that the game reached Europe. 

Often shortened to
mate”, this game position takes place when a player’s king is in check and threatened with capture. Checkmating the opponent leads to winning the game.

Now, while for Persians (c. 700–800) “māt” applies to the king, in earlier Sanskrit chess (c. 500–700) though “māta”, also pronounced “māt”, applied to his kingdom; “traversed, measured across, and meted out thoroughly by his opponent
. “Māta” is the past participle of “mā” verbal root. Others still maintain that checkmate means “the King is dead”, especially that in Arabic māta (مَاتَ) means “died”. 

However, digging even further into the etymology shows that “māt” originally comes from the Persian verb mandan (ماندن), meaning “to remain”, which is cognate with the Latin word maneō and the Greek menō (μένω), meaning “I remain”. It means “remained” in the sense of “abandoned”, while the formal translation is “surprised”, in the military sense of “ambushed”. From the very specific chess sense there developed more general applications such as ‘attack’, ‘arrest’, ‘stop’, ‘restrict’, and ‘verify’. How interesting.

As for Check/Shah, sheikh (شيخ) is the Arabic word for the monarch. Players would announce “Sheikh” when the king was in check. “Māt” (مات) is an Arabic adjective for dead, “helpless”, or “defeated”. So the king is in mate when he is ambushed, at a loss, helpless, defeated, or abandoned to his fate.


Another slight difference in the game is that in early Sanskrit chess the king could be captured, which would end the game. Later, the Persians introduced the idea of warning that the king was under attack — announcing check in modern terminology. This was done to avoid the early and accidental end of a game. The Persians followed by adding an extra rule that a king could not be moved into check or left in check. As a result, the king could not be captured, and checkmate was the only decisive way of ending a game. More details of the tale can be found on Here.

On a parallel note, a checkmating move is recorded in algebraic notation using the hash symbol “#".


Now you know. 



Words With Italian Origin That Are Still Used Today In Egypt

The Origin of ‘Wishbone’ and the “Yadas - Fi bali” (يدس - في بالي) Game

The Real Origin of “It Will Cost You an Arm and a Leg” 

How ‘XOXO’ Came To Mean Hugs & Kisses

The Archaic Origin of the Swastika Symbol [with Photos]  

The Story of Eric Clapton and Majnun Layla

From English as a Third Language to Author — How I Expanded My Vocabulary

Words With No Direct Translation To English

More Words With No Direct Translation To English 

The Difference Between Mandarin, Tangerine, and Clementine

Why Many Place Names End with ‘-Stan’

Why Hippies Are Sometimes Called Bohemians

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