History Languages

Muslims Said it First: ‘Checkmate’

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Mansoor Dahri, UK

There are dozens of ordinary ‘English’ words that originally came from languages historically associated with Islam, such as Arabic, Persian and Urdu.

These words range across diverse fields: from science and literature to food and furniture. Each article in this series will trace the history of one of these words and show how ‘Muslims Said It First’.

In doing so, we hope to show that Muslims have never been strangers to the West; we are as inseparable from its culture, history & heritage as our words are from its languages. And our contribution to its development can be found in any dictionary.

Ever beaten someone at chess? Ever been beaten by someone at chess? Either way, you’ll know that sharp resounding phrase, triumphantly targeting each of the ears of the vanquished in two stabbing syllables: ‘Checkmate!’ 

This cry of victory announces the death of the defeated enemy king and marks the end of the game. 

Call it a cruel irony of time then, or (more generously) history’s unique sense of humour, that various Western nations were taught this phrase by those against whom they would someday come to deploy it in the most tragically apt way possible: through colonialism and abject cultural subjugation. 

‘Checkmate’ came into English from the Old French ‘eschec mat’ at some point in the middle of the 14th century. And ‘eschec mat’ came from the Arabic ‘الشاه مات’ (‘ash-shah maat’ i.e. ‘the king has died’). 

Urdu speakers might also be familiar with the word ‘شامت’ (‘shaamat’) which originally meant ‘checkmate’. 

It’s still commonly used in the Urdu phrase ‘تیری شامت آئے گی’ (‘teri shaamat ayegi’) which basically means something like ‘your time will come’ or ‘you will be destroyed’. Literally, it means ‘your checkmate will come’ (i.e. ‘you will be checkmated’). 

Regional variations of the Arabic phrase ‘ash-shah maat’ can be found in pretty much all of Europe’s languages. Old French ‘eschec mat’ became modern French ‘échec et mat’ (literally ‘check and mate’ which is how it is sometimes also said in English).

In Spanish, it’s ‘el mate’ (from ‘jaque mate’) originally also from the Arabic, just like German ‘schachmatt’, Italian ‘scacco matto’, Portuguese ‘xeque-mate’, Dutch ‘schaakmat’, Russian ‘шах и мат’, Polish ‘szach-mat’, Ukrainian ‘мат’, Hungarian ‘sakk-matt’, Greek ‘ματ’, Norwegian ‘sjakkmatt’, Swedish ‘schackmatt’, Czech ‘šachmat’, Finnish ‘shakkimatti’, Danish ‘skakmat’, Croatian ‘šah-mat’, Serbian ‘шах мат’, Icelandic ‘mát’, Basque ‘xake matea’, Catalan ‘escac i mat’, Welsh ‘siachmat’, Latvian ‘šahs un mats’, Belarussian ‘мат’, Lithuanian ‘šachmatas’, Bosnian ‘šah mat’, Macedonian ‘шах-мат’, Luxembourgish ‘schachmatt’, etc. — all directly or indirectly through the Arabic phrase ‘ash-shah maat’.

In this phrase, the verb ‘مات’ (‘maat’ i.e. ‘he has died’) will be familiar to speakers of Persian and Urdu in the form of the related word ‘موت’ (‘maut’) which is how you say ‘death’ in those two languages as well as in Arabic. It appears a number of times in the oldest book in the Arabic language: the Holy Qur’an. One particularly memorable instance can be seen in the following verse:

ثُمَّ لَا یَمُوۡتُ فِیۡھَا وَلَا یَحۡیٰی
‘Then he will neither die therein nor live.’ [1]

The above verse is a description of what it will feel like to be in hell. Coincidentally, it is also an excellent description of what it feels like to be in stalemate, when there is no legal chess move available to the player whose turn it is and a draw must therefore be declared. 

Now let us turn our attention to the other half of ‘ash-shah maat’. Readers with a sharp eye will have noticed that ‘الشاه’ (‘ash-shah’) is not the usual way of saying ‘king’ in Arabic; the typical word is ‘الملک’ (‘al-malik’). So why isn’t it ‘الملک مات’ (‘al-malik maat’)? 

The answer is that the Arabic phrase ‘ash-shah maat’ itself goes back to the Persian phrase ‘شاه مات’ (‘shah maat’); ‘شاه’ (‘shah’) is how you typically say king in Persian and ‘shah maat’ is Persian for ‘the king is confounded’ (in other words, he has no idea what to do). 

It would appear that Arabic speakers took the phrase from Persian and then after a while forgot it was Persian; thinking that it was Arabic instead, they assumed that it meant that the king had already ‘died’ whereas he had, in fact, merely been confronted with the sudden realisation that this would soon inevitably be the case. 

The word ‘مات’ (‘maat’) has a variety of meanings in Persian e.g. ‘confounded’, ‘confused’, amazed’, ‘astonished’ etc.; Urdu speakers might be familiar with the expression ‘مات دینا’ (‘maat dena’ i.e. ‘to defeat, confound’) which also comes from Persian. 

Saying that ‘the king is confounded’ has a far deeper meaning than simply saying that ‘the king is dead’. This will be apparent to anyone who has played chess properly: contrary to what you might see in some videos, the checkmated king is not dramatically knocked over by the winner — to do so is actually considered rude by most people. 

What really happens is that the game is automatically declared to be over; many don’t even bother to take the vanquished king off the board like the other fallen pieces. There are no further moves; no enemies advance. They don’t need to. The defeated king is left alone on his little square: disoriented, directionless, confused and confounded; not knowing what to do because there is nothing that he can do now.

That’s the real meaning of ‘checkmate.’

About the Author: Mansoor Dahri is an online editor for The Review of Religions. He has recently graduated from UCL in BA Ancient Languages.


ENDNOTES

[1] Holy Qur’an 87:14