Hello, sweet followers!
It’s Tuesday, and it’s time to bring you another interesting tidbit of word history!
Today’s word is “checkmate”.
Chess is the prototype of the “smart” game. When we think of a very intellectual, scheming person we more often than not picture them as playing chess in their spare time.
There’s good reason for this: this game, which originated in India around 250 AD, is easy to learn, but difficult to master. It requires deep thinking and a keen eye for opportunity, and it’s one of the most complex games we play (though not the most complex: that honour probably belongs to Go, invented in China before the 6th century BC. It is so complex, the number of possible board positions has been estimated at 10 to the 107th power. That’s 1000000000000000000000000000 times the number of atoms in the known universe! Chew on that a bit).
From India, the game made its way along the caravan routes to Persia, from where it reached us.
Everybody knows the word that signals victory in a chess match: “checkmate”. It’s become almost synonymous with intellectual victory: you’ve seen it pronounced by detectives and supervillains alike in many movies and books.
But it is a peculiar word, isn’t it? Why “check”? And why “mate”? Are you inviting your friends to take a look at the sick winning move you just pulled?
Well, no. The word comes to us from Old French “eschec mat”, which itself comes from the Persian phrase “shah mat”, meaning “the king is dead”, the ultimate winning condition in chess.
Next time you outsmart your archnemesis, regale them with this tidbit of etymological trivia for extra smugness points!