Mar 28, 2008
I have to give a plug to the blog Bradshaw of The Future who recently wrote about the origin of the word "checkmate" and then added further to this interesting etymological puzzle by writing a follow-up entry.
Excellent and thorough work done, congrats. I've been a chess buff since I was still in gradeschool which fortunately had its own chess club. I've been hooked by the intricate logic of the boundless game ever since. So I always had assumed that checkmate meant "the king is dead" and was from Arabic. I had read that the "mate" part was from Arabic mat 'dead', which ultimately comes from the Semitic root structure *[mwt]. The Semitic root in turn has an Afro-Asiatic cognate in Egyptian also as mwt (presumably pronounced *māwat, hence Sahidic Coptic mou). It all seemed airtight and my normally curious mind never revisited the issue again.
Well, it turns out that it may very well be from Persian and instead means 'the king is at a loss', not 'dead', as the blogauthor of Bradshaw of The Future goes to the effort of pointing out.