The Grammarphobia Blog

Checkmates and roommates

Q: My dorm roomie is a chess fiend, hence my question. Is the “mate” in “checkmate” related to the “mate” in “roommate”?

A: No, they aren’t etymological mates. The one in “checkmate” comes from Arabic and Persian, while the one in “roommate” has been traced back to prehistoric Germanic.

The chess term, which English borrowed from Old French in the mid-14th century, is ultimately derived from the Arabic shāh māt (the king is dead), according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

Chambers says the Arabs got the chess expression from Persian, but in the process confused the Persian māta (to die) with mat (to be astonished). The dictionary says the original Persian version meant “the king is astonished or stumped.” (Modern Persian is known as Farsi.)

The Oxford English Dictionary has entries for “checkmate” as an exclamation, a noun, a verb, and an adjective. It says the term refers to putting an “adversary’s King into inextricable check, a move by which the game is won.”

Today, the dictionary says, the shorter form “mate” is commonly used for “checkmate.” In fact, “mate” showed up before “checkmate” in English writing about chess, according to OED citations.

The dictionary’s earliest citation for “mate” in the chess sense is from Sir Tristrem, a 13th-century Middle English romance that features a game in which one player bets 20 shillings and the other a hawk:

“Oȝain an hauke … Tventi schillinges … Wheþer so mates oþer fair, Bere hem boþe oway” (“Against a hawk … twenty shillings … whoever mates the other fair, bear them both away”).

The earliest written examples for “checkmate” in the OED use it as a general term for defeat, not as a chess term.

The dictionary’s oldest citation is from “An Invective Against France,” a political poem written in Middle English and Latin sometime before 1346, during the Hundred Years’ War between England and France:

“In proprio climat tibi dicet aper cito chekmat (“In your very own state, the boar will say to you checkmate”). The reference is to King Edward III of England (referred to as the boar) and Philip VI of France (called the hare).

The next OED citation is from Roberd of Cisyle (circa 1390), a medieval romance about an arrogant king who is humbled when God replaces him with an angel and makes him the angel’s jester:

“He wende, in none wyse þat God Almihti couþe deuyse Him to bringe to lower stat; / Wiþ o drauht he was chekmat!” (“He thought that in no way could Almighty God bring him to a lower state: With one move he was checkmated!”).

The word “checkmate” is used as a chess term in The Booke of the Pylgremage of the Sowle, John Lydgate’s 1413 translation of a French work by Guillaume de Deguileville, but “chess” here is a metaphor for a moral battle:

“A shame hath he that at the cheker pleyeth, / Whan that a pown seyith to the kyng, chekmate!” (“Cheker” is an obsolete term for the game of chess as well as for a chess board.)

The first Oxford example for “checkmate” used clearly as a chess term in writing is from The Royall Game of Chesse-Play, Francis Beale’s 1656 translation of a book by the Italian chess writer Gioachino Greco: “The maine designe of the game … is as suddenly as can be to give check mate.”

As for “roommate” and other words in which “mate” refers to a companion, associate, friend, or spouse, the ultimate source is the prehistoric Germanic gamaton, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

The element mat in this prehistoric word, Ayto says, is “also the source of English meat; so etymologically mate (like companion) is ‘someone you eat with or share your food with.’ ” For example, gemetta, Old English for “tablemate,” literally means a guest who shares meat. (A recent post discusses “companion,” literally someone you share bread with.)

When the noun “mate” showed up in English writing in the late 1300s, it meant a comrade. The earliest citation in the OED is from Sir Ferumbras (circa 1380), a medieval romance about a Saracen knight:

“Maumecet, my mate, y-blessed mot þou be, / For aled þow hast muche debate” (“Maumecet, my mate, blessed may you be, for you have laid aside much discord”).

The dictionary notes that “mate” is frequently seen “as the second element in compounds, as bed-, flat-mate, etc. (in which it is generally less colloq. than when standing alone).”

The OED has several examples from the 1500s for “mate” used in compounds—whether separated, joined, or hyphenated.

This one is from “Prayse of All Women,” a poem by Edward Gosynhyll: “And nowe more valued than man myne / Lyke so dyd god the femynyne Plaimate of the masculyne.” Most sources date the poem from the early 1540s.

And with that, Happy Valentine’s Day to you and your mate.

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