28 Mar 2008

Checkmate has me 'at a loss'

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.


  1. Wow that's really interesting, just like you, I had always assumed that the king was simply dead in Arabic. :D

  2. Cheers! I should say that M.E. Moghadam's article, which I quote from, seems very convincing but I can't vouch for its accuracy since I know very little about Persian. But since it was written (1938) both the OED and M-W have changed their etymologies of "checkmate" from the Arabic to the Persian origin.

  3. I think I could agree with this, i think mat comes from the Persian word maut and NOT the latin mort which means death, i think the word mort is obtained from persian which means death. However over the years mat has come to represent "at a loss" as you pointed out.
    For example consider this sentence in hindi/urdu. Maratho ne mughalon ko kadi maat di.

    meaning : the marathas handed over a sound defeat to the mughals.

    Here it is not used to represent death. But defeat.

  4. Shubhendu: "[...] i think mat comes from the Persian word maut and NOT the latin mort which means death"

    It's important to cite words correctly. I believe you're getting confused with French mort "dead". This word of course comes from Latin mortus "dead" which is what I presume you mean. This in turn comes from Proto-Indo-European *mrtós which is the participle of the well-attested verb root *mer- "to die". This is a tiny matter but I like to be precise :)

  5. Hi! I recently came across your blog. Do you happen to know whether there may be a relationship between PSem *mwt and PIE *mrtós? I apologize if this is a stupid question; my understanding of linguistics is very basic.


  6. PIE *mr̥tós 'dead' is the participle of *mer-/*mor- 'to die'. The participle ending here is *-to- with a nominative case ending *-s attached (an ending that marks the subject of a sentence). The verb root is in the zero-grade form (ie. the reduced form) because the suffix steals the tonal accent.

    However Semitic *mawātu 'to die' is related to Ancient Egyptian *māwat 'to die' (> Sahidic mou). Unlike in *mr̥tós, the *t is part of this root.

    So that's how we know they aren't related.

  7. Oh, ok. I think I understand. Thank you!