From shah mats to check-ups

The Etymologicon's Mark Forsyth continues his literary journey

Almost every word in the English language derives from shah.

Once upon a time, Persia was ruled by shahs. Some shahs were happy shahs. Other shahs were crippled or dead. In Persian that meant that they were shah mat. Shah went into Arabic as shah (ain’t etymology fascinating?). That went into Vulgar Latin as scaccus. That went into vulgar French (all French is vulgar) as eschec with the plural esches, and that went into English as chess, because a game of chess is a game of king, the king being the most important piece on the board. And what happened to shah mat? When the king is crippled, a chess player still says checkmate.

Chess is played on a chessboard. Chessboards are kind of useful because you can arrange stuff on them. For example, when Henry II wanted to do his accounts he did them on:

a quadrangular surface about ten feet in length, five in breadth, placed before those who sit around it in the manner of a table, and all around it it has an edge about the height of one’s four fingers, lest any thing placed upon it should fall off. There is placed over the top of the exchequer, moreover, a cloth bought at the Easter term, not an ordinary one but a black one marked with stripes, the stripes being distant from each other the space of a foot or the breadth of a hand. In the spaces moreover are counters placed according to their values.
Dialogus de Scaccario, c. 1180

It looked just like a chessboard and, as Henry II spoke French, it was called the Escheker, and that’s why the finances of the British government are still controlled by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. (The S changed to X through confusion and foolishness.)

But chess and Persian kings don’t stop there. We are nowhere near the endgame. Let us continue unchecked.

You see, when your opponent puts you in check, your options become very limited. You have to get out of check in one move or it’s checkmate and the game is over. From this you get the idea of somebody or something being held in check. Checking somebody stops them doing what they want, and that’s why you can still body-check people, and why government is held in check by checks and balances.

Check or cheque began to mean somebody who stopped things going wrong. For example, the Clerk of the Cheque whom Pepys mentions in his 17th-century diaries was the chap who kept a separate set of accounts for the royal shipyard. He checked fraud and served a good lunch.

I walked and enquired how all matters and businesses go, and by and by to the Clerk of the Cheque’s house, and there eat some of his good Jamaica brawne.

And from that you get the sense of a check as something that stops dishonesty. At a hat-check, for example, you get a check to prove that you’re not stealing somebody else’s hat. Bank checks (or cheques) were originally introduced as a replacement for promissory notes and got their name because they checked fraud.

Bank checks started out being spelled with a –ck on both sides of the Atlantic. But British people, perhaps under the influence of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, decided to start calling it a cheque. This has a peculiar etymological result. A blank cheque is a cheque with no check on it. Given that blank cheques are found from as early as 1812, it’s a miracle that the first bouncing cheque isn’t recorded in the dictionary until 1927.

And from there you get check off (1839) and check up (1889). And then the Wright Brothers invented the aeroplane and people would fly around and navigate by distinctive landmarks called check-points. And then the Second World War broke out and pilots were trained and given an examination or checkout. Then shops got checkouts and roadblocks became checkpoints and people went to doctors for checkups and guests checked out of hotels and checked in at check-ins wearing a checked shirt and all, dear reader, all because of crippled shahs from ancient Persia.

All of this has nothing to do with the Czech Republic, which is ruled not by a shah but a president. However, Ivan Lendl’s wife could reasonably be said to have a Czech mate.

The Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth is published by Icon.