Friday, 18 April 2014

Checkmate - "The King Is Perplexed"

A closeup of chess pieces with multicoloured lights in the background
This isn't checkmate (I think), but it's a classy looking game of chess nonetheless
(photo by Tristan Martin)


Interjection, noun, adjective & verb. Middle English.
[Aphetic from Old French eschec mat = Provençal escac mat, from Arabic šāh māt(a) representative of Persian šāh māt the king is defeated, the king is perplexed.]

A interjection. In chess, notifying the putting of an opponent's king into inextricable check, by which the game is won;
transferred notifying an adversary of defeat. ME

B noun. (The notifying to an opponent of) the inextricable check of a king in chess;
transferred & figurative final defeat or deadlock. LME

C predicative adj. In inextricable check;
figurative defeated. LME

D verb trans. Give checkmate to;
figurative defeat, frustrate. LME

I had so much planned for today's post: a comprehensive examination of chess and the use of chess-related terms in the English language; a sample of scenarios in which we use the word checkmate, whether or not we play chess; and an insightful examination of the Old French, Provençal, Arabic and Persian that give us a word derived from a root meaning of "the king is perplexed" (and not killed, which is something that disappointed me greatly as a child when my father explained while teaching me chess that pieces are only captured, not slaughtered ... boo!). 

But, no, it wasn't to be. A dodgy internet connection while travelling through Romania means it was me that was left frustrated and perplexed, unable to write my morning post as I had planned. That being said, it's not quite checkmate, rubbish Romanian WiFi, because unlike the checkmated king I have actually found a way out of your little interwebbed trap, albeit late in the day, after much hair pulling, and with a considerably curtailed post.

A white king and queen putting a black king into checkmate
This is what a real checkmate looks like

Did you know the etymology of checkmate?

Have you ever successfully trumped an opponent and triumphantly announced "Check and mate!" just like in the movies?

Do please pawn off your chessiest comments in the box below.
(and I'm not knocking Romania by the way - it's absolutely wonderful!)


  1. I hope you're having lots of fun! (Don't get blog-stressed while on vacation!)

    My mother taught me how to play chess when I started elementary school. I was 6 and she would get very frustrated every time I didn't resist the temptation of capturing as many pawns (I hope this is the word for the line of soldiers, sorry if it isn't) as I could. She kept saying: "You must think, Evi! It's not about capturing pawns!". Chess isn't as fast-paced as I would like it to be.

    1. It is, Evi, and yes, pawns are just too big a temptation for children.

      My Dad taught me to play, but seeing as I could never beat him I found it the most sickeningly frustrating game. And I hated it. And I still hate it.

  2. I was always under the impression that checkmate meant "the king is dead" and was either Arabic or Persian which I must have read somewhere or heard someone say and probably entrenched in my mind with the mental association of the whole "māt" element of "šāh māt" being akin to "mort" = death further reinforcement added by Latin mortus, mortuus and Proto-Indo-European *mr̥twós, *mr̥tós root.
    The Arabic مَاتَ māta (of šāh māta) is a form of its verb 'to die' mirrored in Hebrew מֵת (mét) but as you rightly say, the Persian "šāh māt" شاه مات does mean 'amazed', 'astonished' rather than (the king is) 'dead'.

    1. My Arabic, Persian and Hebrew is a little rusty (!), so I'm just going by what the OED says on this one.

    2. Can I ask, does the Persian 'mata' roughly map onto the Latin 'mirari' ('be astonished, amazed, marvel, wonder at'), or is it more like just plain 'stunned!' (no object, no wonderment, etc.).

    3. Sorry, meant the Persian 'mat' of course.

    4. I'm afraid I don't know, Brian; my knowledge of ancient language is ... well ... nil. However, should anyone else know the answer to this, please do enlighten us.

  3. Thanks Eddie, going to keep with my virtual digging, as this is a surprisingly consequential question for me in my work just now--but am probably lost without a Persian initiate.
    Got a pretty strong hunch it will, as ours does, shade into wonderment--and a virtual certainty that if it does, our many and profound chess metaphors should shade with it, to some degree or other (especially those connected to stalemate (= stel-mat, or (most deeply for me, Greek) stele-mat). There's wonderful worldplay at work here I think.

  4. I only have a very crude knowledge of Farsi verbs so I'm certainly not an expert but I know that the "māt" of "shāh māt" has been traced back to the Farsi verb: مان (mân-), (inf.) mândan (ماندن) "to remain" and therefore cognate with Latin maneō and Greek menō (μενω "I remain"). It means "remained" in the sense of "abandoned" and the formal translation is "surprised", in the military sense of "ambushed". "shāh māt" (شاه مات) can also be translated as "the King is helpless".

    1. Yes yes, thanks Mwncïod! This is what I've found myself (in roundabout ways). The whole 'death' thing is clearly a later, Shemitic layer; and even the 'astonished' stuff is tertiary to this root sense of remaining.
      Which links up with my work in the most astonishing way. I was māt-ash mī-barad (if I've got that right)!
      Thanks again.

    2. Is there a story behind this very specific enquiry, Brian? : o )

    3. Long, I'm afraid, Eddie, but very happy.
      My work had wound its tortuous way to the end of Beckett's Endgame, and was looking for a way out, as neither death nor life are options anymore; found at last not, as one might expect, in (Hamm's) checkmate, which just invites a new game (again and again), but surprisingly in Clov's stalemate (or stelemate--it's a stelic pose he takes up, as in Beckett's 'Neither'). Finding the 'stele' in 'stale' was my first delight; but finding 'remain' in the Persian 'mat' was heaven sent, for (in Rilke's words) 'what remains is nowhere'--but finally 'nowhere without no' (Duino Elegies 1 and 8).
      Thanks to everyone, and best to all the lexophiles!

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