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An attack on a king is called "check", why is an attack that guarantees the capture of a king called checkmate? What is the origin?

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Good additional reference on Chess History – Garet Claborn May 18 '11 at 5:11
up vote 7 down vote accepted

From Etymonline:


mid-14c., from O.Fr. eschec mat, from Arabic shah mat "the king died" (see check (n.)), which according to Barnhart is a misinterpretation of Persian mat "be astonished" as mata "to die," mat "he is dead." Hence Persian shah mat, the ultimate source of the word, would be literally "the king is left helpless, the king is stumped." As a verb, from late 14c.

Here is a nicer description from word-orgins.com

Checkmate (14th c.) comes via Old French eschec mat from Persian shāh māt ‘the king is left helpless’ ... From the very specific chess sense there developed more general applications such as ‘attack’, ‘arrest’, ‘stop’, ‘restrict’, and ‘verify’. Among these in the 18th century was ‘token used as a counterfoil for verifying something, such as an amount’. As check this survives mainly in American English (as in ‘hat-check’)

Check as in ‘pattern of squares’ (14th c.) is probably short for chequer, which in turn is a reduced form of exchequer, a word derived ultimately from Vulgar Latin *scaccus.

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so check just means "king"? – Louis Rhys May 18 '11 at 4:46
Check comes from a Persian phrase 'shah' (king) where 'shah mata / shah mat' meant 'the king is dead' or 'the king is helpless'. I believe this is actually the Persian gameplay terminology over 1000 years ago before Europeans really caught onto it. – Garet Claborn May 18 '11 at 5:07
Interestingly, that became "scacco matto" in Italian... although matto means mad in Italian! – nico May 18 '11 at 6:09
In Swedish, it's "schack matt", which is pretty close to the original. Cool. (Chess is actually called Schack, fwiw..) – Macke May 18 '11 at 11:52
I find the etymology at word origins (the nicer description) questionable because of the reference to Vulgar Latin. It says check < eschequier (Old French) < eschec < scaccus (Vulgar Latin) < shah (Arabic) < shah (Persian). I don't know what scaccus means exactly (does the '' means it is reconstructed but not extant?), but Vulgar Latin is the name of the colloquial Latin at the time of the Roman Empire ... did the game of chess even exist then, and were there borrowings from Arabic at that time? – Mitch May 18 '11 at 14:31

Check comes from Arabic "Sheikh"; mate comes from "mat". Together the two Arabic words mean the sheikh or master or even king is dead, which signifies the end of a game of chess.

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Or maybe it comes from the Arabic shahu-ka mat, literally, 'your king is dead'. (Shah is king, the ka suffix means 'your', and as the previous commentators have said, 'mat' means 'died'.

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That's an interesting suggestion. Can you find any on- or off-line sources to help it out a bit? – Brian Hooper Sep 17 '15 at 12:02

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