The Etymology of Chess
by Bill Wall
The original word for “chess” is the 6th century Sanskrit (primary liturgical language of Hinduism) word chaturanga (चतुरङ्ग), which translates to “four arms” and pronounced Chat-u-ranga. “Chatur” (चतुर्थ) is Sanskrit for four and “anga” (अङ्ग) means arms or limbs. The four members of the Indian army were elephants, horses, chariots, and foot soldiers. These forms are represented by the pieces that would evolve into the modern bishop, knight, rook, and pawn. The game was played in Western India on a board made up of 64 squares, 8 rows by 8 columns. Originally, the board had no alternating light and dark squares.
The pieces in chaturanga were rajah (king), mantri (counselor), gaja (elephant), asva (horse), ratha (chariot) or roka (boat), and padati (infantryman).
Chaturanga was introduced to Persia around 600 AD. In Middle Persian written in the Pahlavi script, the name became chatrang. The pieces became shah (king), frazen (general), pil (elephant), asp (horse) rox (officer on a chariot), and payadag (soldiers). Chatrang existed for about 200 yearts.
Chatrang subsequently evolved to shatranj in Arab speaking countries. The Arabs did not have the ch or ng sound, so the ch became sh and the ng became nj.
In North Africa (mostly Morocco), the Moors converted the Persian word ash-shatranj and shatranj into shaterej, which gave rise to the Spanish acedrex, axedrez, and finally, ajedrez (formerly pronounced ashedres, now a-khe-dreth). In 711 AD, the Moors led a militaristic campaign against Spain and brought with them their game of shaterej onto the Iberian Peninsula. Spain was the first country in Western Europe into which chess entered. The Moors also brought a game called el-quirkat, an early ancestor to checkers. The Moors were on Spanish soil until 1492.
In Portuguese, the word shaterej became xadrez, pronounced she-dres.
In old Castilian, the Arabic ash-shatranj became acedrex.
In Greek, chatrang became zatrikion, the Byzantine or Neo-Hellenic term for chess. The Greek alphabet had no letter or combination of letters capable of expressing the sound of the Persian ch-, so the nearest letter with that sound was z. Chatrang became Zatrank or Zatrink. It was then Hellenised into Zatrakion or Zatrikion. The word Zatrikion occurs for the first time in the Alexiad by Anna Comnena, written in the beginning of the 12th century. Anna wrote that her father, Emperor Alexis, played zatrikion with his friends.
For the rest of Europe, shatranj was replaced by versions of the Persian word shah (king).
In Latin, the game became ludis scaccorum (game of checks or game of kings) or scacc(h)i. A similar game to chess was known as ludus latrunculorum, latrunculi, or latrines.
In Italian, it became scacchi.
In Catalan, it became escacs.
In Dutch, it became schaken.
In German, it bacme schach.
In Polish, it became szachy.
In Latvian, it became sahs.
In Danish, it became skak.
In Norwegian, it became sjakk.
In Swedish, it became schack.
In Finnish, it became sakki.
In the South Slavic languages, it became šah.
In Hungarian, it became sakk.
In Romanian, it became şah.
The word check came first. The Latin word for check was scac, scacus, scaeum. In Catalan, it was scach. In Italian, it was scacco. In Provencal, it was escac. In Middle French, it was eschec. In Modern French, it is échec. In Anglo-French, it was eschek. In English, it is check. The plural of check was scaci in Latin, scachs in Catalan, scacchi in Italian, escas in Provencal, eschecs in Middle French, échecs in Modern French, esches in Anglo-French, and chess in English.
The word chess, the name of the game in most European languages comes from the 13th century Old French eschés. The modern French word is échecs. Some sources mention that Echec came from the corruption of the world Shiek, the Arabian word signifying King or Lord, but this does not seem to be true. Chess is a corrupted form of checks, i.e., kings. The Old French word was eschecs, the plural of eschec, meaning check (king). In Persian, king is shah.
The Italian word is scacchi can be traced through the Latin word scaci and the Vulgar Latin scaccus. The Latin word can be traced back to the Arabic (شَاه)and Persian (شَاه) name of the chess king, shah.
The Spanish word for chess, ajedrez, comes from the Arabic word (al) shat-ranj, from the Persian word, chatrang, from the Sanskrit word.
The Mongols call the game shatar, derived from shatranj.
In Ethiopia, the game is called senterej, derived from shatranj.
Chess spread from the Middle East to Russia where chess became known as shakhmaty, which literally means checkmates.
When the Arabs received the game chatrang from the Persians, they adopted the original Shah, “King,” which they have all along retained, using the same word both to the piece which we call king, and to the term check. In Sanskrit, there is no such word as mat to denote “dead” or “killed.” The original Persian word for what we call mate was mand, from the verb Mandan “to be exhausted,” or “to be helpless.” The word “mand” meant “drive to his last resource.” The Arabs changed mand into mat, which means “he is dead.” Strictly speaking, the king in chess is neither dead nor captured. When the Arabs introduced the game in Southern Europe, the world Shah denoting the piece was translated into the various languages and dialects under the forms of king, rey, rei, roy, koening, etc.
The Persi-Arabian term Shah-mat, “the King is dead,” was adopted untranslated and became checkmate in English.
In most of the languages, the main piece means king. In Mongolian, this piece, called nojon, means prince. In the older Siamese, this piece is a lord. In Chinese, Korean, and Japanese, this piece means general. In Russian, it is Korol (king), but it has also been called Kniaz (prince) and Tsar (emperor).
In Latin, there were several distinct adaptations of the Arabic word shah (king). It became the interjection scac and scacum. It also became the neuter noun scacum, meaning ‘to check.” It was also used as the adjective scacus, meaning “checked.” It was also used as a verb, scacare, “to check.” It was also a masculine nound scacus, which represented the Arabic noun for king.
In early Sanskrit chess, the king could be captured. His capture ended the game. However, the Persians introduced the practice of warning the player that the piece was under attack by calling out shah (king) – a call from which our “check” is directly descended. Later, the Persians made it illegal for a king to move into check. As a result, the king became immune from capture.
What is now the Queen started out as a counselor or in Sanskrit (mantra), Malay, and the oriental languages. The Persian term for the piece is Farz or Firz, which signified “wise” or “learned,” and denotes a counselor, minister, or general. The forms Farzan, Farzin, and Farzi were also in use, but less frequently. The Arabs originally called it firzan or firz, then adopted the word Wazir for General on receiving the game from the Persians. In Western Europe, it was Latinized into Farzia or Fercia. The French altered the form into Fierce, Fierge, and Vierge. Vierge was in honor of the Holy Virgin, and that converted into modern terms of Dame, Dama, Donna, etc. However, our English word Queen did not originate from the word Vierge (Virgin) or Dame. The Queen was introduced on the board as far back as the reign of Charlemagne. The Byzantines may have been the first people who substituted “Queen” for the original “Minister” or “General.” A Latin manuscript preserved in the Einsieden Monastary in Swizerland (997 AD) contains the first recorded mention of the chess queen (regina). In French usage, riene (queen) replaced fierce or fierge during the 14th century. In the 15th century, riene was replaced by the word dame (lady). In an ancient Latin poem, the Queen was called Virgo. In the 11th and 12th century, a poem called Carmina Burana referred the queen as femina (woman) and coniunx (spouse). The English piece became a Queen, probably because of its position next to the King and possibly due to the political importance of Renaissance queens. In the 15th century, Juan Ramirez de Lucena wrote a treatise reporting both the old rules of the Queen’s movements (De Viejo) and the new ones (De dama).
In Russian, the queen piece preserved the Persian name of ferz. However, at one time, it was called koroleva (queen), korolevna (king’s daughter), tsaritsa (tsar’s wife), kraal (queen), dama (lady), and baba (old woman or nurse).
In Javanese, the piece we call queen is a lord. In Tibetan, it is tiger. In Mongolian, the piece is called bersy, which is a dog. The dog is held in high esteem and protects the king. In Burmese, it is a general. In Siamese, it is a minister. In Polish, it is known as the Hetman, the name of a major historical military-political office.
What is now called Rook started out in its original Sanskrit name, Roka, which meant boat or ship. The Perisans slightly modified the Sanskrit term into Rukh or rokk, which meant hero or champion. The Arabs used the same word (rukhkh) unaltered. This became rokhkhin the Maghrib or Western dialect of Arabic. When it was introduced into Western Europe, it was Latinized into Rochus, then into Roc, Roque, Rocco, Roch, Rock, and Rook. The Italians had a word similar in sound and spelling, called roccu, which meant “a fortress” or “castle.” This gave rise to the Italian word Torre or Castello. From these words came Tour, Thurm, Tower, and Castle. In Russian, it is ladya (boat), but it has also been called tyra bashnye (castle). Another early name for rook was rat’h, which was an armed chariot. This was changed by the Bengalese into rot’h. In some places, the name for the rook was a bird.
What is now called Bishop started out as an elephant (hasti) in Sanskrit. The Persians called it “pil.” The Arabs do not have the letter P in their language, so it became fil or, with their own definite article, al-fil. Al-fil was introduced into Western Europe where it was Latinized into the forms Alphilus and Alfinus. By gradual corruption, it became in the Roman dialects, Alfieres, Alfiere, Alfino, Aufin, etc. In Old French, it was Aufin. The French later converted the term into le Fil, which became le Fol and le Fou (the fool or joker), and fou, which is now used today by the French. In Javan, the piece is a counselor. In Tibetan and Mongolian, it is a camel. The Bishop was called by the English writers alphyn, awfyn, and alfin. Only the English and the Danes call this piece a Bishop. The first mention of the term bishop may be Saul’s Famous Game of Chesse-play, published in 1640. In Russian, it is slon (elephant), but in the past it has been called durak (fool) and offizer (officer). The Poles called this piece Pop, Papa, or Priest.
The Knight seems to be a horse in all the other languages. The original Sanskrit word for horse was Asva. The Persian name was Asp, and the Arabic name was Faras. The Italian Cavalllo and the Russian Kon also mean horse, but in the past it has also been called kavaler (horseman)
What is now called a pawn started out as a foot-soldier in Sanskrit. The original Sanskrit word for the Pawn or “foot-soldier” is Padata, Padati, or Vatika. The Persian term is Piyada. The Arabs modified the word into Baidak. The older Latin terms were Pedes and Pedester. The term for pawn is a child in Tibetan. It is a shell in Siamese. In an old French romance, they are called garcons. In the middle ages, the French called them paon, paonnet, paonnes, ponniers, poons, poones, and pionnes. The Spanish peon or French pion, may be a contraction of espion, a spy, or peton, a footman. In Russian, it is pieshka (footman).
In the early 16th century, the pieces in English were written Kyngis, Quyens, Rokis, Alfyns, Knyghtis, and Paunys.