Tag Archives: Words the Persians Gave Us

The Marvellous Word History of Mummies

Hello,

I’ve mentioned before how much I enjoy the Qi Elves’ podcast “No Such Thing as a Fish“. They are clever people chatting about cool facts and having a huge amount of fun teasing each other at the same time. Mostly I laugh along, but now and then I rush off to jot down a word for this blog, a fact for a nonfiction book, or inspiration for a story.

Which is a roundabout way of explaining why mummy is the word (as opposed to mums the word) this week here on Wordfoolery. They mentioned that we get the word mummy from bitumen and that bitumen is extracted from natural islands in the Dead Sea. Don’t ask me where they found that gem but I reckon it’s obscure enough for me to explore here.

Mummy in Louvre, Paris. Note the intricate wrapping of the head.

Mummy arrived in English in the 1300s spelled as mummie but at that time it described a substance prepared from a mummy and used in medicine, to staunch internal bleeding apparently. Delightful notion.

The word came to English via Latin (mumia) but originated in Arabic mumiyah (embalmed body) from Persian mumiya (asphalt) and mum (wax). Egyptologists believe that Arabs who saw the blackened appearance of the mummies thought the remains were covered in bitumen and named them accordingly.

Mummy in the Vatican Museum, Rome. Note the dark exterior.

The connection of the word mummy with Egyptian mummies didn’t reach English until the 1600s. Of course mummies existed long before that time. The Chinchorros of South America created the first, around 5,000 B.C. and the Egyptians adopted the idea around 2,500 B.C. Creating each one took about forty days.

Not all mummies were human. There’s an Egyptian mummified cat in the National Museum of Ireland and others include jackals, baboons, horses, and lions.

 

In Victorian times, hosts would buy a mummy and throw a party at which the unwrapping of the body served as the entertainment for the evening. The mind boggles.

Bitumen was used in the mummification process, so the Persians weren’t too far off in their naming of mummies. Bitumen, if you didn’t know (I had to look this one up) is a natural oily form of petroleum also known as tar (the more common term for it here in Ireland). Bitumen occurs naturally in several places around the world including the La Brea Tar Pits in California and the Dead Sea. It was used by humans as early as 40,000 years ago for waterproofing and glue.

As well as being ground up for medicines and unwrapped at parties, mummies were also used as the main component in the paint called mummy brown. Thankfully the manufacturer stopped this in the 1960s, because they had run out of available mummies.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Checkmate, Chess, and Elephants

Hello,

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 ├ęchec 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.

Lewis Chessman

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,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)