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Chess Quest - The Origins of Chess


The King Isn't Dead After All!
The Real Meaning of Shah Mat or the Lesson of the Commode
by Jan Newton
(September, 2003)

 

Like millions of other chessplayers, I've always thought that shah mat ("check mate" in English) means "the King is dead".

This explanation of the term is all over the internet, stated as fact on website after website. People have heard (or read) it so often, they have naturally assumed that it must be so. But while researching the origins of chess over the past four years I have occasionally seen shah mat described as something else. So, what is the true meaning of shah mat? In the mysterious way these things work, one night when I couldn't sleep I found myself wondering just that. I fumbled my way in the dark to my den, turned on a light, and pulled the dictionary off a bookcase.

I was on my way to looking up "check mate" when I stumbled across "commode" instead. My eyes nearly popped out of my head when I read:

com mode/ n [F, fr. commode, adj., suitable, convenient, fr. L commodus, fr. com- + modus measure – more at METE) (1688) 1: a woman's ornate cap popular in the late 17th and early 18th centuries 2 a : a low chest of drawers b : a movable washstand with a cupboard underheath c : a boxlike structure holding a chamber pot under an open seat; also : CHAMBER POT d : TOILET 3b[1]

Well! I was utterly and completely shocked! I'd had no idea a commode was something women used to wear on their heads! This episode proved to me just how treacherous words can be. I had always thought a commode was a sort of chest of drawers, or what people used to call a chair-over-a-chamber-pot, the precursor to our modern-day toilet. If I ever found myself wondering what it meant to "discommode" someone (pull someone out of a dresser drawer? Push someone off the toilet seat ("Hey, buddy! Get outta my way") - it was not a question I considered of earth-shattering significance in the greater scheme of things and therefore I never bothered to dig deeper. But now I knew what it really meant to be "discommoded"!

I put the dictionary away and went back to bed. I didn't fall asleep immediately, but laid staring up at the ceiling, imagining scenes of a dastardly late 17th or early 18th century varlet (wearing a long, curly wig with nits and lice jumping about) terrorizing the local maidens by threatening to discommode them! What could be worse than having one's commode ripped off one's unsuspecting head, especially if one was having a bad hair day? I totally forgot about checking the definition of "check mate". I recovered from the shock of discovering what "commode" really means, but I pondered the significance of how the usage and meaning of words change over time. As someone who routinely researches in the backwaters of ancient history, I have to keep this problem constantly in mind. It is difficult enough dealing with language evolution in one's native tongue; when attempting to decipher a foreign language, the difficulty is all the greater because a non-native speaker is unlikely to be aware of colloquial nuances and "slang" terms. How easy it would be to err.

Bearing in mind the uncertainties of translation that language can often embody, one day I ventured forth on the great wide internet to see what I could find out about shah mat.

My first stop was a Google search under "the King is dead". While this produced many websites about Elvis, nothing in the first few pages of search results had anything to do with chess. I moved on to a search for "shah mat". A small sampling of the findings from that search:

Comment in a story about Kasparov's historic match against Deep Blue[2]:
Chess is, after all, a form of war. The word comes from the Persian cry, Shah Mat! -- the king is dead. (Emphasis added).

From an article on the history of chess at "YourDictionary"[3]:
The culmination of this bloodless substitute for bloodletting is the murder of the enemy king, although the modern game ends euphemistically with the checkmate. This term, too, can be traced through a millennium to Persia. Shah mat "checkmate" means 'the king (shah) is dead,' where "mat" is related to the Latin stem mort- "death" found in "mortuary." (Emphasis added).

Entry under "Shah" in the 1911 Edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica (online)[4]:
SHAH, the title of the kings of Persia, the full title being pads/zak, i.e. "lord king," Pers. pati, lord, and shah, king (see PADISHAH, the Turkish form of the word). The word shah is a much shortened form of the O. Pers. kksayatkiya, probably formed from khsayathi, might, power, kksi, to rule. The Sanskrit kshatram, dominion, is allied, cf. also "satrap." From the Pers. shah mat, the king is dead, is ultimately derived, through the Arab. pronunciation shag, "check-mate," then "check," "chess," "exchequer," &c. (Emphasis added).

There were many more of such results. I did, however, find a few references that countered the "king is dead" interpretation of shah mat:

In an article from the April 25, 2003 online edition of "The Moscow Times"[5], by Carl Schreck (the Moscow Patzer):
The Russian word for chess "shakhmaty" came to Russia from the Persians via the Arabs. The Persian word for "king" is "shah," and the phrase "shah mat" can be translated as "the king is ambushed." (Emphasis added).

From the "Online Etymology Dictionary"[6]:
checkmate – c. 1346, from O.Fr. eschec mat, ult. from Pers. shah mat, lit. "the king is left helpless." (Emphasis added). From the Piececlopedia[7] entry for "King": Our words Chess and checkmate both come from "Shah," the Persian word for King. Checkmate comes from the Persian expression "shah mat", which literally means, as Davidson points out, that the King is ambushed. Although "mat" is also an Arabic word for dead, the expression was in use by the Persians before Chess spread to the Arabs, and it did not mean dead in Persian. Reports that checkmate means the King is dead are mistaken. (Emphasis added)

While there were many more entries in favor of shah mat meaning "the King is dead", I was inclined to give more weight to the "King is ambushed" or the "King is helpless" translation. I was getting nowhere fast on my initial internet forays, however, and so I decided to try a different approach. I pulled the chess researcher's Bible, H.J.R. Murray's "A History of Chess"[8] off the bookshelf to see what he had to say on the subject. On page 159 (second paragraph) I found:

Shah is the Middle and Modern Persian form of the Old Pers. khshayathiya, which is found on the cuneiform inscriptions on the rock-face of the cliffs at Behistun. In Pahlawi writing the Huzvarish form malka was used in its place. It has always been the royal title of the Persian monarch. When the Shah in chess was attacked by any other piece it was usual to call attention to the fact by saying Shah, it being incumbent upon the player whose Shah was attacked to move it or otherwise to remedy the check. This usage passed into Arabic, and was adopted in European chess, although with the change in name of the piece it ceased to have any obvious meaning. Indeed in Med. Lat. the word scac in this sense was simply treated as an interjection. When the Shah was left in check without resource, mat or shah mat was said. Mat is a Persian adjective meaning 'at a loss', 'helpless', 'defeated', and is a contracted form of the adjective mand, manad, manid (RAS(2) uses regularly shah manad and manad for shah mat and mat), which is derived from the verb mandan, manidan, 'to remain'.(1) (Emphasis added).

The "RAS" Murray refers to in Note (2) above means MS. Royal Asiatic Society, Persian, No. 211.[9] Note (1) states: See Hyde, ii. 133, who quotes a number of Persian dictionaries or the form manid; a note by Mirza Kasim Beg in the Journal Asiatique, 1951, ii. 585; Gildemeister in ZDMG., xxviii. 696; and Dozy's Supplement aux dictionnaires arabes, Leyden, 1878. The old view of the pre-scientific philologists that mat was the Ar. verb mata, 'to die' - a view which began to be current at an early period in the life of Muslim chess - has been abandoned by modern scholars.

Murray had spoken! But I wasn't ready to wrap up my research just yet. I wanted further confirmation from different sources about the meaning of the Pahlavi word mat. I next checked "The Oxford Companion to Chess"[10]. It's entry under "check mate" states, in part: The word is derived from the Persian shah, meaning king, and mat, meaning helpless or defeated. (Emphasis added). Confirmation of Murray by Hooper and Whyld.

What I did not know and what I could not answer, was how much Hooper and Whyld may have relied upon Murray's scholarship in writing their entry on "check mate". I returned to the internet, where I had found so much valuable information in the past. As my earlier Google search had used "shah mat", I now tried a few variant spellings.

At the World History Archives[11] I discovered an archived discussion from 1998 on the origin of the Queen.[12] One of the replies[13] stated:

The term check mate comes from Persian shaah maat, the king is dumfounded/ stymied (and not from Arabic Shah maat, the king died, which is the etymology most dictionaries give). (Emphasis added).

I then checked a few English-Persian online dictionaries. At Iranianlanguages.com[14], a modern Persian dictionary, I typed in the word mat and the English results were "mate", "opaque", "stalemate", and "tire".

A Comprehensive English-Persian Dictionary (Including the Arabic Words and Phrases to Be Met With in Persian Literature)[15], a classical Persian-English dictionary, stated:

mat (p. 1136): a mat, He died, he is dead; conquered, subjected, reduced to the last extremity (especially at chess), checkmated; astonished, amazed, perplexed; <-> mat-ash mi-barad, He is struck dumb (m.c.); -- mat kardan, To confound; to check mate; -- burd u mat, Check and mate.

I completed my research foray by visiting the Encyclopaedia Iranica[16]. In an article written by Professor Bo Utas[17] of Uppsala University (Uppsala, Sweden), he states:

"Tthe game is won in the same basic way, by sah-mat (checkmate). It is generally supposed that mat is the Arabic perfect of the verb"to die," but this seems unlikely since the very point of the story, as told in the Sah-nama, is that the King is made powerless and paralyzed without being hit by anybody (cf. Murray, p. 159). Other pieces get killed (NPers. kosta) but the King becomes mat (note omitted), a word appearing in various Persian languages with the meaning "broken, paralyzed." Furthermore, early usage implies that Arabic al-sahmat was a loanword from Persian (note omitted). The term was also adopted in most European languages (e.g., Sp. jaque mate).[18]

Just in case you're curious, here's the definition of check mate -- the one I didn't check that night I discovered the real meaning of "commode": check mate/ vt [ME chekmaten, fr. chekmate, interj. used to announce checkmate, fr. MF eschec mat, fr. Ar shah mat, fr. Per, lit., the king is left unable to escape] (14c) 1 : to arrest, thwart, or counter completely 2 : to check (a chess opponent's king) so that escape is impossible[19]

Oh, those tiny little twists and turns of fate that lead us here instead of there. If I had read that definition of check mate on that sleepless night, I would have had my answer: shah mat means to put the king in such a position that he is arrested, thwarted or countered so completely that he is unable to escape. He is blockaded, dumbfounded, paralyzed, stymied (one might even say that in such a situation, the King is greatly discommoded). Shah mat does not mean "the king is dead." But if I had learned what "check mate" really meant that night, I probably would not have explored the matter further, and this article might never have been written.

(c) Jan Newton 2003


[Ed. note: This small terracotta depicts a young woman from Crete wearing a very elaborate headdress. Paleo-palatial period, 2000-1700 BC. ÒThe paleopalatial age reached its artistic apex with Camares ceramicsÉÓ asserts Alexiou (1967), who documents a similar headdress found in a mountain sanctuary on the Kofinas on the southern coast of Crete. Bibliography (for this item) Alexiou, Stylianos, Nikolaos Platon, and Hanni Guanella 1967 La Cr�te Antique. Hachette, Paris, France. ( # 45)

ENDNOTES
:

[1] Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, copyright 1989 by Merriam-Webster Inc., p. 265. See also Merriam-Webster's online dictionary at http://www.m-w.com/cgi-bin/dictionary?book=Dictionary&va=commode.

[2] "No. 1242, "Kasparov and Deep Blue", by John Lienhard, from Engines of Our Ingenuity, (c) 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard, http://www.uh.edu/engines/epi1242.htm.

[3] The Tangles of Time - A Brief History of Chess, by Paul J.J. Payack, President & CEO, YourDictionary,com, from the "WordMan" series, http://www.yourdictionary.com/library/wordman007.html.

[4] The 1911 online (OCR scanned) edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, http://80.1911encyclopedia.org/S/SH/SHAH.htm , © 2002 by LoveToKnow Corp.

[5] "Finishing the Game with a "Shakh I Mat", http://www.themoscowtimes.com/stories/2003/04/25/099.html.

[6] By Douglas Harper, (c) 2001, http://www.etymonline.com/.

[7] Written by Hans L. Bodlaender and Fergus Duniho, http://www.chessvariants.com/piececlopedia.dir/king.html.

[8] Benjamin Press reprint of original Oxford University Press Edition of 1913, ISBN 0-936-317-01-9.

[9] Murray, p. 177.

[10] Second Edition, by David Hooper and Kenneth Whyld, Oxford University Press, 1992, ISBN 0-19-866164-9.

[13] Written by Franklin D. Lewis. Mr. Lewis closed his reply with an address at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, Middle Eastern Studies. The discussion, which appears to have been conducted by students and professors of middle eastern studies, mentioned several resources both on- and off-line (a website, treatises and books) that I have subsequently found extremely useful in my research.

[15] By Francis Joseph Steingass, London: Routledge & K. Paul, 1892. http://dsal.uchicago.edu/dictionaries/steingass/, online version part of the Digital Dictionaries of South Asia project.

[16] A project of the Columbia University Center for Iranian Studies, http://www.iranica.com.

 

[17] "The History of Chess in Persia", pp. 394-396. Information on Professor Utas can be found here http://www.afro.uu.se/forskning/iranforsk/professor_bo_utas.htm; see also http://www.sasnet.lu.se/indoupps.html.

[18] Encyclopaedia Iranica, p. 395.

[19] Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, p. 230. See also http://www.m-w.com/cgi-bin/dictionary?va=checkmate.