The Grammarphobia Blog

Check it out

Q: Your recent discussion on WNYC about the use of “check” to mean a restaurant bill made me think of the French term for this: l’addition. I love it because it’s so logical.

A: Although “check” may not be as logical a choice for a restaurant bill as l’addition, I suspect that the English word has a more interesting history.

All of the modern senses of “check” (a bank draft, a move in chess, a bar tab, and so on) are ultimately derived from a Persian word that I’m sure you know: shah, or monarch, as in the Shah of Iran.

Shah was also a term in chess, a game played in Persia long before it was introduced in Europe, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.).

A Persian chess player would say shah, explains American Heritage, as a warning that an opponent’s king was under attack. The Persian word then passed through Arabic and probably Old Spanish before ending up as eschec in Old French.

Now things really got interesting. In the early 1300s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the Old French eschec and its plural eschecs gave us our name for the game, “chess,” as well as our interjection or warning, “check.”

Since then, “check” has evolved in all sorts of directions – as a noun, a verb, and an interjection – from that initial idea of checking the king in chess.

The various usages, according to the OED, “have acted and reacted on each other, so that it is difficult to trace and exhibit the order in which special senses arose.”

The original “check” in chess has given us the adjectives “checked” and “checkered” (that is, marked with a chessboard pattern); the verb “check” in its many senses, including to stop, to verify, even to check one’s coat; a check mark; a bank check (originally a receipt stub to help check or stop fraud); and finally (in 1869) a restaurant tab in the US.

In Britain, by the way, some forms of “check” began to be spelled “cheque” in the 17th and 18th centuries. And our game “checkers,” so called because it’s played on a checkered board, is called “draughts” across the pond.

The word “Exchequer” (the royal treasury, originally spelled “escheker”) is thought to refer to a tablecloth divided into large squares on which the king’s accounts were toted up. The cloth resembled a “checker” (chessboard).

You might say the word “check” has had a checkered history.

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