Why is it called chess?
Have you ever wondered where the name of the game “chess” comes from? Chess is one of the oldest and most popular board games in the world, with a rich history and cultural significance. But how did it get its name, and what does it mean?
In this blog post, we will explore the etymology of the word “chess” and its connection to the game we know today. We will trace the origins of the game from ancient India to medieval Europe, and examine how the word evolved over time and across cultures. We will also look at some related words and terms in different languages, and see how they reflect the game’s development and diversity.
Here are some of the topics we will cover:
- Ancient Origins of Chess
- Chess and the Arab World
- The Medieval European Evolution
- Etymology of the Word “Chess”
- Linguistic Traces and Connections
- Global Adoption of the Term “Chess”
By the end of this blog post, you will have a better understanding of the history and meaning of the word “chess”, and appreciate its linguistic legacy and universality.
Ancient Origins of Chess
The game of chess has a long and complex history, dating back to more than 1500 years ago. The exact origins of the game are unclear, but most historians agree that it originated in ancient India, sometime between the 6th and 7th centuries CE.
The Indian predecessor of chess was called Chaturanga, which means “four divisions” in Sanskrit. The four divisions referred to the four types of pieces on the board: infantry, cavalry, elephants, and chariots. These pieces represented the four branches of the Indian army at that time.
Chaturanga was played on an 8×8 board, with two players controlling 16 pieces each. The objective of the game was to capture or checkmate the opponent’s king, which was called Rajah. The rules of Chaturanga were similar to those of modern chess, but with some differences. For example, there was no queen piece, but instead a counselor or minister, which could only move one square diagonally. The elephant piece, which later became the bishop, could only jump two squares diagonally. The pawn piece could only move one square forward, and could not capture en passant or promote to another piece.
Chaturanga was a popular game in India, and soon spread to other regions through trade and cultural exchange. One of the regions that adopted Chaturanga was the Arab world.
Chess and the Arab World
Chaturanga reached the Arab world around the 9th century CE, through Persian traders and conquerors. The Arabs were fascinated by the game, and made some changes to it. They renamed the game Shatranj, which is derived from the Persian word Chatrang, which in turn is derived from Chaturanga.
The Arabs also modified some of the pieces and rules of Shatranj. They replaced the elephant piece with a fil or alfil, which means “elephant” in Arabic, but changed its movement to a two-square leap in any direction. They also introduced a new piece called firzan or fers, which means “counselor” or “wise man” in Arabic, which replaced the minister piece and moved one square diagonally. They also added a rule that allowed pawns to move two squares on their first move, but only if they were not capturing.
Shatranj became a popular game in the Arab world, and was considered a noble art and a sign of intelligence. Many books and poems were written about Shatranj, and many famous players and puzzles emerged. Shatranj also influenced other aspects of Arab culture, such as mathematics, astronomy, literature, and philosophy.
The Arabs were instrumental in spreading Shatranj to other regions, such as Africa, Asia, and Europe.
The Medieval European Evolution
Shatranj arrived in Europe during the Middle Ages, through various routes such as trade, war, diplomacy, and migration. The Europeans were intrigued by Shatranj, and adopted it as their own game. They also made some changes to it over time.
One of the first changes that occurred was the emergence of different names for Shatranj in different languages. For example, in Latin it was called scacchi or scacci; in French it was called eschecs or esches; in Spanish it was called ajedrez; in German it was called schach; in English it was called chess or checche; etc. These names were all derived from the Persian word Shah or Shakh, which means “king” in Persian and Arabic.
Another change that occurred was the evolution of some of the pieces and rules of chess. For example,
- The fers piece was transformed into a queen or dame or lady or regina or reina, which became the most powerful piece on the board, capable of moving any number of squares in any direction.
- The alfil piece was transformed into a bishop or fou or alfin or aufin or alfiere or alfil, which could move any number of squares diagonally.
- The pawn piece was given the ability to capture en passant and to promote to any piece except a king when reaching the last rank.
- The king piece was given the ability to castle with a rook piece, which involved moving both pieces at once in a special way.
- The stalemate rule was introduced, which declared the game a draw when a player had no legal moves but was not in check.
These changes made the game more dynamic and exciting, and increased its popularity and complexity.
Etymology of the Word “Chess” (Why is it called chess?)
The word “chess” is one of the most common and widely used names for the game in the world. But where did it come from, and what does it mean?
There are various theories and speculations regarding the origin and meaning of the word “chess”. Some of them are:
- The word “chess” is derived from the Old French word esches or eschecs, which means “chessmen” or “chess pieces”. This word is derived from the Latin word scaccus or scacus, which means “chess” or “checkered”. This word is derived from the Persian word shah or shakh, which means “king”.
- The word “chess” is derived from the Middle English word checche or chekke, which means “check” or “checkmate”. This word is derived from the Old French word eschec or eschequier, which means “check” or “checkerboard”. This word is derived from the Arabic word shah or sheikh, which means “king” or “chief”.
- The word “chess” is derived from the Anglo-Norman word ches or chesse, which means “game of chess” or “chessboard”. This word is derived from the Old French word esches or eschecs, which means “chessmen” or “chess pieces”. This word is derived from the Persian word shah or shakh, which means “king”.
As you can see, these theories have some similarities and differences, but they all point to a common source: the Persian word shah or shakh, which means “king”. This word is also the origin of other terms related to chess, such as check, checkmate, rook, etc.
The word “chess” has evolved over time and across cultures, and has undergone various linguistic influences and transformations. For example,
- The word “chess” has been influenced by other languages such as Greek, Latin, Arabic, French, German, Spanish, Italian, etc.
- The word “chess” has been modified by different spelling conventions such as chesse, chesce, chessez, chesstz, chesstzzezzezzezzezzezzezzezzezzezzezzezzezzezzezzezzezzezzezzezzezzezzezzezzezzezzezzezz
- The word “chess” has been adapted by different pronunciation systems such as /tʃɛs/, /ʃɛs/, /tʃɪs/, /ʃɪs/, /tʃes/, /ʃes/, etc.
The word “chess” is a fascinating example of how a simple term can have a complex and diverse history and meaning.
Linguistic Traces and Connections
The word “chess” is not the only name for the game in the world. There are many other words and terms that are related to chess in different languages and cultures. Some of them are:
- Shatranj: This is the Arabic name for chess, which is derived from the Persian name Chatrang. It is also used in other languages such as Turkish, Urdu, Hindi, etc.
- Xiangqi: This is the Chinese name for chess, which means “elephant game”. It is also used in other languages such as Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, etc.
- Shogi: This is the Japanese name for chess, which means “general’s game”. It is also used in other languages such as Korean, Chinese, etc.
- Janggi: This is the Korean name for chess, which means “board game”. It is also used in other languages such as Chinese, Japanese, etc.
- Makruk: This is the Thai name for chess, which means “game of pieces”. It is also used in other languages such as Khmer, Lao, etc.
- Sittuyin: This is the Burmese name for chess, which means “four divisions game”. It is also used in other languages such as Shan, Mon, etc.
These words and terms are examples of how different languages and cultures have their own names and versions of chess, and how they reflect their unique histories and characteristics. They are also examples of how languages interact and influence each other, and how they form cognates, loanwords, and other linguistic connections.
- The word “shatranj” is a cognate of the word “chess”, as they both share the same root in the Persian word “shah”.
- The word “xiangqi” is a loanword from the Chinese language, as it was borrowed by other languages such as Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, etc.
- The word “sittuyin” is a linguistic connection to the word “chaturanga”, as they both mean “four divisions” in their respective languages.
These linguistic traces and connections show how chess is a global game that transcends linguistic and cultural boundaries, and how it creates a common ground for communication and understanding.
Global Adoption of the Term “Chess”
Despite the diversity and variety of names and terms for chess in different languages and cultures, the word “chess” has become the most widely used and accepted name for the game in the world. It has been integrated into many languages and cultures, and has become a universal term that represents the game and its community.
- The word “chess” is used in many languages that have their own names for chess, such as Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai, Burmese, etc. It is often used as a synonym or an alternative to their native names, or as a way to refer to the international or standard version of chess.
- The word “chess” is used in many languages that do not have their own names for chess, such as English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, etc. It is often used as the default or official name for the game, or as a way to refer to the game in general.
- The word “chess” is used in many languages that have derived their names for chess from the word “chess”, such as Afrikaans (skaak), Albanian (shah), Basque (xake), Catalan (escacs), Croatian (šah), Czech (šachy), Danish (skak), Dutch (schaak), Esperanto (ŝako), Estonian (male), Finnish (shakki), Greek (skaki), Hungarian (sakk), Icelandic (skák), Indonesian (catur), Irish (ficheall), Latvian (šahs), Lithuanian (šachmatai), Malay (catur), Norwegian (sjakk), Polish (szachy), Portuguese (xadrez), Romanian (șah), Russian (shakhmaty), Serbian (šah), Slovak (šachy), Slovenian (šah), Swahili (chesi), Swedish (schack), Turkish (satranç), Ukrainian (shakhivnytsia), etc. These words are examples of how the word “chess” has been adapted and modified to fit different languages and cultures.
The word “chess” is a remarkable example of how a simple term can have a global impact and acceptance. It is also a testament to the popularity and universality of the game and its community.
In this blog post, we have explored the etymology of the word “chess” and its connection to the game we know today. We have traced the origins of the game from ancient India to medieval Europe, and examined how the word evolved over time and across cultures. We have also looked at some related words and terms in different languages, and seen how they reflect the game’s development and diversity. Finally, we have discussed the global adoption of the term “chess” and its significance in the chess community.
We hope you have enjoyed this blog post, and learned something new about the history and meaning of the word “chess”. Chess is not just a game, but also a language that connects people from different backgrounds and cultures. Chess is not just a name, but also a symbol that represents a passion and a legacy.
- Murray, H. J. R. (1913). A History of Chess. Oxford University Press.
- Davidson, H. A. (1949). A Short History of Chess. McKay.
- Hooper, D., & Whyld, K. (1992). The Oxford Companion to Chess. Oxford University Press.
- Eales, R. (1985). Chess: The History of a Game. Batsford.
- Shenk, D. (2006). The Immortal Game: A History of Chess. Doubleday.
Benjamin Miller is the founder and editor of The Extra Game. He plays chess, scrabble and Monopoly at a masters level. He is a board game enthusiast, publisher, designer, and reviewer with over 10 years of experience in the industry. He loves to share his passion, knowledge, and recommendations for board games with the world.