This week’s word is checkmate.
I help out in my local school library on Mondays. Sadly, due to funding cuts, the school wouldn’t have a library if parents didn’t volunteer to run it. One of my regular tasks is to reset the numerous chess boards scattered around the room. I don’t play chess, but I researched how to set out the board. In doing so, I stumbled upon the origin of checkmate.
English doesn’t take many words from Persian in comparison to languages such as Greek or Latin, although tiger, musk, and paradise are wonderful contributions. I was delighted to examine a Persian word import.
In chess, if a king is in check and cannot escape, they are in checkmate. The word entered English from Old French eschec mat (it’s échec et mat in Modern French). The phrase is also in Spanish as jaque y mate and in Italian as scacco-matto. All three come from the Arabic and Persian shah mat. There’s some debate on the translation of shah mat. Many think it’s “the king is dead” which is literally true as the king is dead within the game, but it’s more likely to be “the king is astonished, stumped, or left helpless” which is more true within the game.
Either way I love the idea of checkmate referring to this tiny king being in trouble in his wooden world.
I had no idea Persia was the source of chess. I believed the Vikings were behind it and it’s true they played a similar strategy game called Tafl or Hnefatafl. If you’re curious there’s more about chess-like games played in Viking countries, Scotland, Ireland etc here. The oldest existing chess set (1120) was found on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland which was a Viking outpost at the time. A replica of a fierce Lewis chessman guards my keys from behind his oversized shield.
In fact, chess originated in India in 550 A.D., but was popularised in Persia where the chess army was comprised of foot soldiers, cavalry, a chariot, and an elephant. Once chess was accepted by the Muslim world it spread with the Moorish invasions to Spain and the rest of the western world. The teens in the library are playing an ancient game used for 1,400 years to educate the mind in strategy.
I just wish they’d kept the elephant.
Until next time happy reading, writing, and checkmating,