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?


3 Answers 3


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.

  • 2
    so check just means "king"?
    – Louis Rhys
    Commented May 18, 2011 at 4:46
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    Interestingly, that became "scacco matto" in Italian... although matto means mad in Italian!
    – nico
    Commented May 18, 2011 at 6:09
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    In Swedish, it's "schack matt", which is pretty close to the original. Cool. (Chess is actually called Schack, fwiw..)
    – Macke
    Commented May 18, 2011 at 11:52
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    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
    Commented May 18, 2011 at 14:31
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    Chess is somewhat special etymology-wise in that many languages have assimilated it in some form or another and it is very, very old. Commented May 18, 2011 at 15:07

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.


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'.

  • That's an interesting suggestion. Can you find any on- or off-line sources to help it out a bit? Commented Sep 17, 2015 at 12:02

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