I was recently arguing with a friend that the idiom "in check" comes from chess. With the meaning that keeping someone or something "in check" restrains its choices and limits its actions, this seems to match the chess meaning. (When you are in check, you have to save your king and hence cannot make any other moves.)

However, I could not find a suitable etymology to prove this. It's also possible that both come from a common meaning of restraint.

Is there evidence that this idiom comes from chess?

  • It is a little surprising, but Online Etymology Dictionary shows all versions of "check" arising out of the game of chess. I would have assumed the ever-popular nautical origin.
    – Hot Licks
    Feb 8, 2016 at 18:55
  • @Hot Licks okay, it's sarcasm, isn't ? (I'm tired.)
    – P. O.
    Feb 8, 2016 at 19:04
  • @P.Obertelli - For once I was being completely serious. On both counts.
    – Hot Licks
    Feb 8, 2016 at 19:06

1 Answer 1


Well, you're right, but did you even check one dictionary before posting?

Check: (Collins) Word Origin C14: from Old French eschec a check at chess, hence, a pause (to verify something), via Arabic from Persian shāh the king! (in chess) http://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/check

  • Consistent with this answer, Merriam-Webster's online dictionary lists chess-related meanings as the first (and hence earliest) definitions for check as a noun and for check as a transitive verb.
    – Sven Yargs
    Feb 8, 2016 at 18:20

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