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How Did the Chess Items Get Their Names?

How Did the Chess Items Get Their Names?

2023-04-22 10:38:37

A sport of chess is like a Chinese language newspaper: a set of symbols that may be understood by individuals who converse completely different languages. Within the Chinese language instance, Mandarin and Cantonese audio system can learn and perceive the identical textual content, though they use completely different phrases for a similar ideas.

Chess, too, is completely intelligible by members who share no different communication abilities. However scratch the floor and the standardized sport reveals a large number of linguistic particularities. One participant’s pawn is one other’s farmer. What you might name a bishop, any person else is aware of as an elephant. Or a idiot.

Chaturanga to Skák

Chess took a millennium to beat the recognized world. It first emerged in India within the early seventh century as chaturanga, lastly reaching Iceland as skák round 1600 A.D. See Big Think’s Strange Maps piece for an itinerary of the sport and an summary of its varied names the world over.

Because it moved west towards Europe—first passing via the Persian and Arab cultural filters—the sport maintained its board, items, and most of its guidelines. But it additionally underwent some refined and not-so-subtle tweaks. In a way, the symbolic illustration of an Indian battlefield changed into a sublimated type of medieval match.

Not solely the sport itself, however some items additionally assumed completely different identities as they entered new cultural areas. Others, nonetheless, stubbornly clung to their origin tales. A few of these variations have attention-grabbing histories. However intriguingly, different variations stay shrouded in thriller.


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The notion of the pawn as a “foot soldier” is pretty constant all through the historical past of chess, with the Indo-European root for “foot” echoing all the best way from the unique Sanskrit padati, through the Latin pedester to fashionable French pion (and imported into fashionable Turkish as piyon) and English pawn.

Different phrases can be found: In outdated French, pawns had been referred to as garçons (“boys”). Moreover, pion is typically mentioned to derive from espion (“spy”).

Apparently, the Spanish time period peon additionally means “farmer,” which is the time period used throughout a lot of Germanic languages and some others (e.g. bonde in Danish, kmet in Slovenian)—little question as a result of in instances of battle, farmers had been the obvious supply of cannon fodder.

Have Horse, Will Soar

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From the very starting of chaturanga, this piece—initially referred to as asva, Sanskrit for “horse”—has firmly maintained its equine affiliation. In fact, that is seemingly as a result of it’s the solely piece that is ready to leap over the heads of the opposite items. Because the map reveals, the variation in nomenclature is pretty restricted: The piece is both named after the animal (e.g., cavallo in Spanish), its rider (e.g., riddari in Icelandic), or the motion it makes (e.g., springare in Swedish).

Due to this proximity in that means, and the truth that the piece is often styled like a horse, adjoining ideas are sometimes used interchangeably. In Hungarian, as an example, the official time period is huszár (“knight”), however the piece can be colloquially referred to as (“horse”). Equally, in Czech the piece is a jezdec (“rider”) however usually merely a kun (“horse”).

For These About to Rook

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Within the earliest variations of the sport, this was a “chariot”—ratha in Sanskrit, rukh in Persian. But in lots of languages throughout Europe, this piece is called a tower or a fortress. How did that occur?

One idea is that the Arabs transmitted the Persian time period rukh nearly unchanged to Europe, the place it changed into outdated Italian roc or rocco. That’s nearly similar to rocca, the outdated Italian time period for “fortress,” which affiliation in flip gave rise to alternate names for the piece: torre (“tower”) and castello (“fortress”).

One other idea is that Persian battle chariots had been so closely armored that they resembled small, cellular fortifications—therefore the hyperlink between rukh and castles.

A 3rd concept is that the people-carriers on the backs of elephants in India, referred to as a howdah and utilized in battle to assault opponents, was usually represented as a fortified fortress tower in chess items from Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-century Europe. The elephant ultimately disappeared, whereas the (Persian) identify caught.

With a great old school siege in thoughts, it isn’t such a giant leap from castles and towers to “cannon,” which is what the piece is named all through the Balkans.

What’s extra puzzling is that the rook is named “ship” (or “boat”) in another languages, together with Russian (lad’já) and Armenian (navak). May there have been a translation mishap? Rukh is Persian for “chariot,” whereas roka is Sanskrit for “boat” (however no early chess piece was ever referred to as roka). Or is that this as a result of Arab rooks usually had been V-shaped, like a ship’s bow? Or as a result of the piece strikes in a straight line, like a ship?

No person is aware of for certain. Nevertheless, historic Indian chess units visualized this piece as an elephant. And certainly, in Hindi and a number of other different Asian languages, the piece continues to be referred to as “elephant.”

Elephant Goes Episcopal

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No chess piece elicits a wider vary of epithets throughout Europe than the bishop. It begins as one other elephant, besides that this piece was really referred to as “elephant” in Sanskrit (hasti) and in Persian (pil). That was Arabized as al-fil, which was Latinized as alphilus.

In French, that grew to become fil, fol, and at last fou, which implies “idiot” or “jester.” That time period was the results of a sequence of whispers, which was then faithfully translated into Romanian. One other whisper modified alphilus, which implies nothing in Italian, into alfiere, which implies “normal bearer” in Italian.

The big selection of this piece’s actions explains phrases similar to “runner” (e.g., Läufer in German), “hunter” (e.g., lovac in Serbian), “gunner” (e.g., strelec in Slovak), and “spear” (oda in Estonian). The Russians are amongst those that have maintained the unique “elephant,” referred to as slon in Russian. However previously, it has additionally been referred to as a durak (“idiot,” in all probability a mortgage from the French) and an offizer.

Officer and/or nobleman is a reasonably generic time period. A notable various to the official Bulgarian time period ofitser (“officer”) is fritz, derived from the nickname for German troops throughout World Warfare II—a comparatively latest innovation, in all probability helped by the truth that it sounds just like the official time period.

Aside from English, only some different languages name this piece the “bishop”: Icelandic, Faroese, Irish, and Portuguese. Why? No person actually is aware of. The miter-shaped look got here after the identify. The time period does have some pedigree: The Lewis chessmen, carved from walrus ivory within the twelfth century, have already got the bishops wearing recognizably ecclesiastical garb.

The Virgin and Different Variations

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Whereas it might appear logical that the king has a queen by his aspect, that’s not how issues began out. Within the Indian unique, this piece was the king’s “counselor” (mantri in Sanskrit). The Arabs used wazir (“vizier,” i.e., the ruler’s minister/secretary), which was Latinized to farzia, which grew to become the French vierge (“virgin”).

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That was an intriguing mistranslation as a result of, in massive components of Europe, the pattern was to feminize the king’s companion. A manuscript from across the 12 months 1000 incorporates the primary point out of the piece with the identify regina (“queen”), presumably a Byzantine innovation. Within the 14th century, reine (“queen”) changed vierge on the French chessboard, and a century later, reine herself was changed by dame (“woman”). This may increasingly have been a borrowing from the sport of checkers.

Why did the king’s counsel develop into his consort? Three (presumably complementary) theories flow into: the spiritual cult of the Virgin Mary, the literary trope of courtly love, and the relative significance of queens in medieval politics. What is evident, nonetheless, is that the piece not solely acquired a brand new, feminine identification but in addition better powers. The mantri may solely transfer one sq. diagonally, whereas the fashionable queen combines the straight-line strikes of the rook with the diagonal ones of the bishop.

Whereas the piece is named “woman” or “queen” in most European languages, Russian and different Slavic languages retain variations of ferz, the Persian time period for “counselor.” Polish makes use of hetman, a excessive army rank from Jap European historical past. Russian (and different Slavic languages) additionally variously use(d) koroleva (“queen”), korolevna (“princess”), tsaritsa( “emperor’s spouse”), kral (“queen”), dama (“woman”), and baba(“outdated lady”).

Mysteriously, Estonian calls the piece lipp (“flag”).

Cuban chess champion José Raúl Capablanca played American Herman Steiner in Los Angeles in a 1933 match involving people as pieces. Cecil B. DeMIlle refereed, and Capablanca won.
Cuban chess champion José Raúl Capablanca performed American Herman Steiner in Los Angeles in a 1933 match involving folks as items. Cecil B. DeMIlle refereed, and Capablanca received. Normal Photographic Company/Getty Photographs

One Piece to Rule Them All

Uniquely, the sport’s central piece has maintained its unique title all through Europe. Within the Indian sport, it was referred to as rajah, Sanskrit for “king.” The Persian equal shah gave rise to the secret itself in lots of different languages (e.g., échecs in French or skák in Icelandic).

As is well-known, “checkmate” derives from the Persian for “The king is useless”—though, when taking part in towards an precise king, a extra prudent phrase was used: “The king has retired.”

This piece’s kingly standing is a continuing all through the map, from koról’ in Russian and König in German to erregea in Basque and teyrn in Welsh (though the latter phrase, associated to “tyrant,” is a much less frequent Welsh time period for “king” than brenin). In Yiddish, the king might be referred to as kinig or meylekh, two phrases that imply the identical, however derive from German and Hebrew, respectively. In Russian, alternate names embody tsar (“emperor”) and kniaz (“prince”).

Nevertheless, in Asian variations of the sport, this central piece has a barely completely different standing: a “common” in Chinese language and Korean and a “prince” in Mongolian.

The king can solely go one sq. in any path, however within the thirteenth century, he was permitted one leap per sport. This ultimately advanced into the mix transfer referred to as “castling,” which includes a rook. The king strikes about his fortress, so to talk.

This article initially appeared on Big Think, house of the brightest minds and largest concepts of all time. Sign up for Big Think’s newsletter.

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