Thursday, 20 March 2008

check, chess, Xerxes, shah

The Proto-Indo-European root *tḱeh₁- "to gain control of, gain power over" became Proto-Indo-Iranian *kṣayati "to own, control", as in Sanskrit क्षत्रिय kṣatriya, "a member of the military or reigning order (which in later times constituted the second caste)".

In Old Persian, *kṣayati became xšāyaθiya "king in the possession of the imperious power", then Persian شاه‌ šāh, as in shah. The name Xerxes (Ξέρξης) is apparently the Greek form of xšaya-aršan- "ruling over men". (Old Persian and Avestan aršan "man" from PIE *ere-s- "to flow".)

šāh was also used in chess as a warning when the king was under attack - ie, "check". This was borrowed into Arabic, then into Old French as eschec, then Middle English as chek. This came to mean, among other things, "identifying token" in the 18th century, spelled check or cheque. None of my sources tell me what the Arabic word was or where the /k/ came from - but according to this dictionary, "cheque" is الصكّ al-ṣakk.

The Old French plural of eschec was esches, borrowed into Middle English as ches. So chess, check and cheque come from the same Old French word. And according to the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, French chèque was borrowed from English. So some borrowed words do get returned!

12 comments :

Jon Boy said...

The OED has a different etymons for check and chess. They say it comes from the Latin word scacci, but it doesn't give an origin beyond that. But it gives so many variant forms of the words and their origins that I'm having a hard time figuring it all out.

And on a somewhat related note, my friend Porteiro thinks that Xerxes is the most awesome name imaginable. He wanted to name his last son that, but his wife vetoed him.

goofy said...

Yeah, it's pretty confusing. I'd better clarify that I don't have the OED (I'd like to subscribe, but it's expensive), I have the 2001 Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. It doesn't mention scacci. I'd guess that the Latin word was an intermediary between the Arabic and Old French.

WordzGuy said...

Beautiful. A natural companion piece here might be the (perhaps limited?) manifestations of the root that gave us the -mate in checkmate (and, it seems obvious, matador -- matar in Spanish), etc.

komfo,amonan said...

FWIW, Wiktionary has V.L. *scaccus coming from the Arabic . Also, AHD has -mate coming from Arabic for "to die", hence šāh māt "the king is dead".

Interestingly, RAE says the etymology of Spanish matar is disputed. So it may indeed have come from the Arabic.

goofy said...

This argues that Arabic origin of "checkmate" is incorrect, and that it is Farsi in origin, meaning "the king is at a loss". This is also what my Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology says: Persian shāh māt "the king is helpless".

I know very little about Farsi, but some online dictionaries translate مات as "dumbstruck". I am unable to find any PIE source for this word.

Glen Gordon said...

Egad, "the kind is helpless"? I would think the king is dead.

The Proto-Semitic root for 'to die' is *mwt. It even has an Afro-Asiatic cognate in Egyptian mwt (> Sahidic Coptic mou).

Glen Gordon said...

ack, that should read: "'the king is helpless'?" I have mad happy fingers. Sorry.

goofy said...

Well, you could argue that with checkmate, the king is not dead, just cornered.

kris said...

Regarding the final /k/: it is not an uncommon alternation to have /k/ /q/ <- -> /h/, /?/. Even though it usually is sound change in one direction, in Indonesian final /k/ is pronounced [?] in the standard language, and might alternate with /h/ also. (though I am not sure if "shah" is actually supposed to have a final /h/ or if it's just an artifact of the orthography.

Also regarding mate (or Matt in German), which IIRC means "dead" in Persian, I've always found it interesting that mati means "dead" in Indonesian. I was thinking of some intriguing loan connection here, but apparently mati is from Proto-Austronesian maCay. Same fallacy applies for Indonesian dua Latin duo, nusa Greek nesos.

However, nama, sama and antara are really loans from Sanskrit, cognate with English name, same and Latin inter..

Jon Boy said...

"Well, you could argue that with checkmate, the king is not dead, just cornered."

That's my take on it, too. Of course, that doesn't exactly prove which origin is correct. Obviously we need someone to spend hours and hours poring over old Farsi and Arabic manuscripts until we find the earliest example.

Voron said...

Jon Boy: My wife and I had a little boy just two months ago and named him Xerxes.

I can't believe it's not a more popular name.

Robert said...

Ka Mate in Maori means "I die" and is the first phrase in the haka!