The Shah Has Died

On Language

By Philologos

Published January 02, 2008, issue of January 04, 2008.
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Zev Shanken of Teaneck, N.J., has an interesting question about chess, the modern Hebrew word for which is shah.mat, spelled hngy, with a Tet as its final letter. Since shah.mat comes from Russian shakhmaty, which is related to English “checkmate”; and since both these words, like similar expressions in other European languages (for example, Italian scacco mato, Spanish jaque mate, etc.), derive from the Arabic esh-shah mat, “the Shah has died”; and since Arabic mat is a close cognate of Hebrew met, which also means “has died” or “dead” and is spelled zn, with a Taf at the end, Mr. Shanken wondered why shah.mat is not spelled with a final Taf too. Seeking the answer, he writes, he went to Ernest Klein’s “A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language” and found there the explanation that the Taf of shah.mat was changed to Tet on the recommendation of the renowned Hebrew poet Haim Nachman Bialik (1873-1934), who opposed associating chess with death or with killing. And Mr. Shanken concludes:

“I never heard of such a thing! Do you know of other examples where Hebrew spelling has been changed for philosophical, political, theological or other non-linguistic reasons?”

No, I don’t. And frankly, I don’t believe that spelling shah.mat with a Tet had anything to do with such reasons either. Even if Ernest Klein was correct in attributing this spelling to the influence of Bialik, the latter’s motive for preferring it would have been a different one.

Bialik, after all, was a literary scholar as well as a poet and was certainly familiar with the earliest description of chess in Hebrew literature, a charming poem by the medieval Hispano Hebrew poet Abraham Ibn Ezra (1092-1167). At the end of this poem, Ibn Ezra writes of the checkmated king: Ve-eyn matsil ve-lahereg yehi mat, that is, “And helpless, he falls [mat, hn, with a Tet] to his death.” Although Ibn Ezra, in other words, does say that the checkmated king dies, he connects the mat of esh-shah mat with a Hebrew verb for falling, not for dying. If it was indeed Bialik who chose to spell shah.mat with a Tet, he simply would have been following Ibn Ezra.

Was Ibn Ezra, whose native language was Arabic, merely punning on Arabic mat? That’s possible. Interestingly, however, recent research on the long-accepted “Shah is dead” theory of words like “checkmate” and shakhmaty suggests that “falls” rather than “dies” may be a more accurate translation of the original meaning of the mat of shah.mat.

There is no disagreement about the etymology of our English word “chess” and its many cognates in various languages. All ultimately derive from Sanskrit chaturanga, meaning “the four members of an army” — a reference to the mounted elephants, cavalry, chariots and foot soldiers that composed an ancient Indian military force and were represented by pieces on the Indian chessboard. (Although there is some evidence that chess may have been invented somewhat earlier in China, the game is generally believed to have originated in northwest India in the early centuries of the Common Era.) From India, chess spread to Persia, where

chaturanga became chatrang; from Persia to the Arabs, who called it shatranj; via the Arabs to Spain, where it changed to ajedrez, and from there to France, where it mutated again to esches (whence English “chess’) and later to échec. In medieval Latin the game was called scaccus, and in medieval Hebrew, ishkakey.

The Shah of the expression shah mat thus started out as a folk etymology of the Persians, who understood the first syllable of chatrang to refer to the king or the Shah of the chessboard. But the same Persians, it seems, were unlikely to have thought that mat meant “died,” because while medieval Persian indeed had a large number of Arabic-derived words, mat in the sense of “died” was not one of them. The mat of shah mat, according to Persian scholars, is most likely a contraction of the adjective mand or manad, meaning “ambushed,” “helpless,” “defeated” or “at a loss.” It was only when the Arabs learned to play chess from the Persians that they indulged in some folk etymology of their own and interpreted the Persian adjective for “ambushed” or “helpless” as the Arabic past participle for “died.”

Since Abraham Ibn Ezra, though a polyglot and an accomplished philologist, did not know Persian, it is far from certain that he was aware of this. Yet, his 12th-century description of the checkmated king’s downfall does seem to reflect the meaning of Persian mat. It goes in part:

The king is trapped in their [his opponents’] pit
And mercilessly caught in their net.
With nowhere to turn and no fortress to flee to,
He is condemned and laid low [nishmat] by the enemy>And, helpless, he falls [mat] to his death.

This would have been Bialik’s proof text — or that of whoever first decided to spell modern Hebrew shah.mat with a Tet. Purging the word for “chess” of unpleasant associations would have been the furthest thing from anyone’s mind.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.


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