How did chess pieces get their name?

The Russian Vladislav Artemiev and Alina Bivol (background) during the 2021 FIDE Chess World Rapid & Blitz Championship in Warsaw on December 29. (Credit: Foto Olimpik/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

A chess game is like a Chinese newspaper: a series of symbols that can be understood by people who speak different languages. In the Chinese example, Mandarin and Cantonese speakers can read and understand the same text even though they use different words for the same concepts.

Chess is also perfectly intelligible to participants who do not share other communication skills. But when you get to the surface, the standardized play reveals a multitude of linguistic quirks. One player’s pawn is the other player’s jack. What you may call a bishop knows another as an elephant. Or a fool.

Chaturanga to chess

Chess took a millennium to conquer the known world. It first appeared in India in the early 1970se century as chaturanga, finally reach Iceland as chess around 1600 AD. (To see Strange Cards #844 for directions to the game and an overview of the different names around the world.)

As it moved west toward Europe—first through Persian and Arab cultural filters—the game retained its board, pieces, and most of its rules. Still, it also underwent some subtle and not-so-subtle tweaks. In a way, the symbolic representation of an Indian battlefield turned into a sublimated form of medieval tournament.

Not only the game itself, but some pieces also took on a different identity as they entered new cultural spaces. Others, however, stubbornly clung to their origin stories. Some of those differences have interesting histories. But intriguingly, other differences remain shrouded in mystery.


chess pieces
Foot soldier or farmer? In war the difference can be small. (Credit: Imgur)

The idea of ​​the pawn as a “foot soldier” is fairly consistent throughout the history of chess, with the Indo-European root for “foot” coming all the way back from the original Sanskrit fall, via Latin pedestrian to modern French pawn (and imported into modern Turkish as pawn) and English pawn.

Other terms are available: in old French pawns were called guys (“guys”). In addition, it is sometimes said that pawn comes from: spy (“spy”).

Interestingly, the Spanish term peony also means “farmer”, which is the term used in a number of Germanic languages ​​and a few others (e.g tram in Danish, pawn in Slovenian) — no doubt because in times of war peasants were the most obvious source of cannon fodder.

Have a horse, will jump

This horse has a millennial pedigree. (Credit: Imgur)

From the very beginning of chaturanga, this piece — originally called Asva, Sanskrit for “horse” – has firmly maintained its equine association. Of course, this is probably because it is the only piece that can jump over the heads of the other pieces. As the map shows, the variation in nomenclature is quite limited: the piece is either named after the animal (eg. horse in Spanish), its rider (eg. Knight in Icelandic), or the movement it makes (eg. ros in Swedish).

Because of this closeness in meaning and the fact that the piece is usually stylized as a horse, adjacent concepts are often used interchangeably. For example, in Hungarian, the official term is hussar (“knight”), but the piece is also popularly called To shoot (“horse”). Likewise, in Czech, the piece is a rider (“rider”) but often just a when (“horse”).

For those who are about to smoke

chess pieces
From car to castle. (Credit: Imgur)

In the earliest versions of the game, this was a “wagon” – ratha in Sanskrit, rukh in Persian. But in many languages ​​across Europe, this piece is known as a tower or a castle. How did that happen?

One theory is that the Arabs transferred the Persian term rukh almost unchanged to Europe, where it became old Italian roc or rocco. That’s almost identical to rocca, the old Italian term for “fort”, which in turn gave rise to alternative names for the piece: torre (“tower”) and castello (“Castle”).

Another theory is that Persian chariots were so heavily armored that they resembled small, mobile fortifications – hence the link between rukh and castles.

A third idea is that the human carrier on the backs of elephants in India, a how so? and used in war to attack opponents, was often represented as a fortified castle tower in chess pieces from 16e– and 17ecentury Europe. The elephant eventually disappeared, while the (Persian) name stuck.

With a good old-fashioned siege in mind, it’s not that big a jump from castles and towers to “cannon,” as the piece is called throughout the Balkans.

What’s more puzzling is that the tower is called “ship” (or “boat”) in some other languages, including Russian (lad’ja) and Armenian (navak). Could there have been a translation error? Rukh is Persian for “carriage”, while year is Sanskrit for “boat” (but an early chess piece was never mentioned) year). Or is this because Arab towers were often V-shaped, like a ship’s bow? Or because the piece moves in a straight line, like a ship?

Nobody knows for sure. However, ancient Indian chess sets visualized this piece as an elephant. And indeed, in Hindi and several other Asian languages, the piece is still called “elephant”.

Elephant becomes bishop

An eclectic array of swear words. (Credit: Imgur)

No chess piece elicits a wider range of swear words across Europe than the bishop. It starts out like another elephant, except this piece was actually called “elephant” in Sanskrit (Good) and in Persian (pill). That was arabized as al-fil, which was Latinized as alphilus.

In French that was file, follow, and finally freak, meaning ‘fool’ or ‘jester’. That term was the result of a series of Chinese whispers, which were then faithfully translated into Romanian. Another whisper changed alphilus, which means nothing in Italian, in Bishop, which means “standard bearer” in Italian.

The wide range of movements of this piece explains terms like “runner” (eg. Runner in German), “hunter” (eg. Hunter in Serbian), “shooter” (eg. shooter in Slovak) and “spear” (Room in Estonian). The Russians are among those who have preserved the original “elephant” called elephant in Russian. But in the past it also became a stop (“fool”, probably a loan from the French) and an officer.

Officer and/or nobleman is a fairly general term. A remarkable alternative to the official Bulgarian term ofitser (“officer”) is fritz, derived from the nickname for German troops during World War II – a relatively recent innovation, probably helped by the fact that it resembles the official term.

Aside from English, only a few other languages ​​call this piece the “bishop”: Icelandic, Faroese, Irish, and Portuguese. Why? Nobody really knows. The mitered appearance came after the name. The term does have a pedigree: the Lewis chess pieces, carved from walrus ivory in the 12th century, already have the bishops dressed in recognizable ecclesiastical garb.

The Virgin and Other Versions

From royal advisor to royal consort. (Credit: Imgur)

While it may seem logical that the king has a queen by his side, that’s not how it started. In the Indian original, this piece was the king’s “advisor” (mantric in Sanskrit). The Arabs used wazir (“vizier”, i.e. the minister/secretary of the ruler), which was Latinized into farce, which became the French Virgin (“Virgin”).

That was an intriguing mistranslation, because in much of Europe the trend was to feminize the king’s companion. A manuscript from about AD 1000 contains the first mention of the piece called regina (“queen”), possibly a Byzantine innovation. In the 14th century, Queen (“queen”) replace Virgin on the French chessboard, and a century later, Queen itself was replaced by Lady (“Lady”). This may have been a loan from drafts.

Why did the king’s council become his consort? Three (possibly complementary) theories circulate: the religious cult of the Virgin Mary, the literary trope of courtly love, and the relative importance of queens in medieval politics. It is clear, however, that the piece not only acquired a new, feminine identity, but also acquired greater powers. The mantric could only move one square diagonally, while the modern queen combines the rook’s straight moves with the bishop’s diagonal moves.

While the piece is called “lady” or “queen” in most European languages, Russian and other Slavic languages ​​retain versions of ferz, the Persian term for ‘advisor’. polish usage hetman, a high military rank in Eastern European history. Russian (and other Slavic languages) also alternately use (d) Queen (“Queen”), Queen (“princess”), tsaritsa (“Emperor’s wife”), king (“Queen”), dama (“lady”), and baba (“old woman”).

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

One piece to rule them all

chess pieces
It’s good to be the king. (Credit: Imgur)

Uniquely, the central piece of the game has kept its original title throughout Europe. In the Indian game it was called rajah, Sanskrit for ‘king’. The Persian equivalent shah gave rise to the name of the game itself in many other languages ​​(eg. chess in French or chess in Icelandic).

As is well known, ‘checkmate’ is derived from the Persian word for ‘the king is dead’ – although, when you play against a actually king, a more cautious expression was used: “the king has withdrawn.”

The royal status of this piece is a constant on the map, from about ‘ in Russian and king in German the king in Basque and tyranny in Welsh (although the last word, related to ‘tyrant’, is a less common Welsh term for ‘king’ than king). In Yiddish (not on the map) the king can be called tremble or meylekh, two words that mean the same thing but come from German and Hebrew respectively. In Russian, alternative names include tsar (“emperor”) and kniaz (“Prince”).

However, in Asian versions of the game, this central piece has a slightly different status: a “general” in Chinese and Korean and a “prince” in Mongolian.

The king can only move one square in each direction, but in the 13th century he was allowed one jump per game. This eventually evolved into the combination move called “rolling,” which involves a rook. The king moves, as it were, through his castle.

Images found here on Imgur.

Strange Cards #1124

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