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
millions of other chessplayers, I've always thought that shah mat
("check mate" in English) means "the King is dead".
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.
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:
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
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
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.
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.
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:
in a story about Kasparov's historic match against Deep Blue:
is, after all, a form of war. The word comes from the Persian cry,
Shah Mat! -- the king is dead. (Emphasis added).
an article on the history of chess at "YourDictionary":
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."
under "Shah" in the 1911 Edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica (online):
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).
were many more of such results. I did, however, find a few references
that countered the "king is dead" interpretation of shah mat:
article from the April 25, 2003 online edition of "The Moscow Times",
by Carl Schreck (the Moscow Patzer):
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."
the "Online Etymology Dictionary":
– c. 1346, from O.Fr. eschec mat, ult. from Pers. shah mat, lit. "the
king is left helpless." (Emphasis added). From the Piececlopedia
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)
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" 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).
Murray refers to in Note (2) above means MS. Royal Asiatic Society,
Persian, No. 211. 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.
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". 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.
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.
World History Archives I discovered an archived discussion from
1998 on the origin of the Queen. One of the replies stated:
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).
checked a few English-Persian online dictionaries. At Iranianlanguages.com,
a modern Persian dictionary, I typed in the word mat and the English
results were "mate", "opaque", "stalemate", and "tire".
English-Persian Dictionary (Including the Arabic Words and Phrases
to Be Met With in Persian Literature), a classical Persian-English
(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
my research foray by visiting the Encyclopaedia Iranica. In an
article written by Professor Bo Utas of Uppsala University (Uppsala,
Sweden), he states:
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).
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
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.
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)
 Benjamin Press reprint of original Oxford University Press Edition
of 1913, ISBN 0-936-317-01-9.
 Murray, p. 177.
 Second Edition, by David Hooper and Kenneth Whyld, Oxford University
Press, 1992, ISBN 0-19-866164-9.
 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.
Encyclopaedia Iranica, p. 395.