Chess pieces

I would like to know why chess pieces have such silly names. King, queen, bishop, knight, and pawn I can deal with. But rook? Isn’t that a kind of bird? Furthermore, in French the word for “bishop” is not l’évêque but le fou (the crazy man). The Spanish word is el alfil which doesn’t seem to mean anything else. And the Esperanto word for bishop is la kuriero (the courier!) Didn’t the bishop (or was it the rook) start off as an elephant or something? Why the variety of names?

If you want more information than you can possibly use, try this:

It’s a long and wandering dictionary entry (or list of dictionary entries) for the rook. Somewhere in all of that it says that ‘rook’ is a colloquial term for the governor of a castle. Makes sense in the royal/noble/church/peasant scheme of the chess board.

My Webster’s says the word is ultimately Persian, but offers no info on its original meaning. Wasn’t chess original a Persian invention?

Hope this helps a little, anyway.

“non sunt multiplicanda entia praeter necessitatem”
– William of Ockham

a bit off topic, but I’ve read somewhere that “checkmate” is ultimately derived from “shah mat” - the king (“shah”) is dead - in Persian??

Found some relevant info.

EB on the variations among the bishop and the rook:

MW on the word rook:
Etymology: Middle English rok, from Middle French roc, from Arabic rukhkh, from Persian rukh

Alphagene and jti are correct in the likely derivations from the Persian (Iranian) of checkmate and rook.

If you’re interested, I recommend ‘A History of Chess’ by Murray, Oxford University Press (1913), reprinted Benjamin Press.

Persian invention?! Well, yes; that is, if you think India is Persia. But it’s not and chess began, by most reputable accounts in India.

The game was invented in India, but came to Europe by way of Persia, and some Persian terminology survived. (I suspect that, just as with “Arabic” numerals, and “[E]Gypsies”, Europe was deceived as to ultimate Indian origins.)

John W. Kennedy
“Compact is becoming contract; man only earns and pays.”
– Charles Williams

o/~ What’s gonna happen to Chess-Piece Face? o/~

Hmm, my musical notes came out very ugly. Ah well…

It’s not correct to say definitely that chess was invented in India. Murray (see my earlier thread) and other historians conclude that chess probably came from India or Persia. But there isn’t any conclusive evidence, just stuff like pieces or boards that were probably used for ‘chess’ - or a similar game.

Early versions of chess had the queen and bishop much less powerful (leaving the rook as the big guy). The Italians (or the Spanish?!) came up with the modern moves around 1600.

Apparently Shah Jehan (built the Taj Mahal) used 32 virgins as living chess pieces. And some people think chess is boring…

The Rabid Child is still tuning in,
Chess Piece Face’s patience must be wearing thin…

The Spanish alfil comes from the Arabic name for the piece, al-fil, which I believe means “the elephant.” in ur-chess, known as chaturanga and later shatranj, the diagonally moving piece is known as the elephant; it still goes by this designation in Chinese chess (which is actually named for this piece: xiang qi, “elephant game”). In Germany, BTW, the piece is called der Laufer, “the messenger.” The rook, from Arabic ar-rukh (“the chariot”), was turned into a castle tower by Europeans who misinterpreted the Arabic pieces (the Arabs couldn’t use figurines depicting people because of the Muslim prohibition of idolatry, so they gave us the abstract figures we use today).

Also, it is pretty much accepted that chaturanga was invented in India (where the pieces and pawns represented divisions of the military: elephants, cavalry, chariots and infantry) and spread both east and west. To the east it passed through China (whence xiang qi) and on to Japan (where it became shogi, “generals’ game”); to the west it passed through Persia and Byzantium (whence shatranj), then into the Arab world, then to Italy. It was in Italy that “modern” chess was created with the empowerment of the queen, formerly a weak vizier.

And yes, shah mat is Persian for “the king is dead.” (It also gives the game its Russian name, shakhmaty. Had enough yet?)

Errr… Not only is my Britannica quite positive about the Indian origin of the game, it says expressly that Murray said so in 1913. I have never, in 40 years or so, seen any serious claim to the contrary, and as far as I know, the theory has been well known and accepted for over 200 years.

John W. Kennedy
“Compact is becoming contract; man only earns and pays.”
– Charles Williams

John W. Kennedy,
your research is impeccable - I only meant that we’ve although found some evidence of a boardgame like (or an ancestor of) chess in India, plus some (probably later) material in Persia:- (pedantically) it’s not quite the modern game.
Sorry if that sentence was too long!
P.S. are you a keen player too?

Well, if you want the modern game, that’s European. At a minimum, the present-day queen and castling are, and I think the two-square pawn move may also be.

And yet the differences between the FIDE version of Chess and the Korean version of Chang-gi and the Japanse version of Sho-gi and the Chinese version of Xian-gi all are essentially minor as they’re essentially the same game.

I’ll go with JWK on this one, glee, as he obviously knows what he’s talking about. You, on the other hand, shot your mouth off.

Yes, the initial two-square pawn move IS European. Gets things going quicker, in our fast-paced Western world.

My chess books are at home, but wasn’t it an innovation of the Spaniard Ruy Lopez?


you’re certainly tough on people!

Pluto says “Wasn’t chess originally a Persian invention?”
and you reply
“Persian invention?! Well, yes; that is, if you think India is Persia.”
I’m sure Pluto knows the difference - he was just making a helpful suggestion.

Similarly I don’t think I’ve “shot my mouth off”.

  • I complimented John W. Kennedy on his research
  • I reported that “Shah Jehan (built the Taj Mahal) used 32 virgins as living chess pieces” - that’s got to count for something!

Depends on what the shah meant when he shouted “mate!”

(I know–terrible pun, but I couldn’t resist any longer.)

Glee: my remark about “if you think Persia is in India” is what’s sometimes referred to as “acerbic humour.” The comment addressed to you was concerning your comment about “defninitely not.”

I liked your last post (that’s also a tune!).

Actually Shah Jehan was an expert on mating positions (ho,ho).

By saying:
‘It’s not correct to say definitely…’

I didn’t mean
‘It’s definitely incorrect…’

In any case this site has really taught me a lot about accuracy, citing, research and humour - thanks to everyone!!