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Alice Becker-Ho

Excerpt from Du Jargon, Héritier en Bastardie [On Jargon, Heir to Bastardy] by Alice Becker-Ho (éditions Gallimard, Paris, 2002)
Translated by John McHale

"The ideal of noble contest is particularly evident in a society where a military nobility with moderate landed property obeys a monarch regarded as divine or sacred, and where the central duty of life is loyalty to your lord. Only in such a feudally constructed society, in which no free man is required to work, can chivalry flourish and with it the tournament. Only under a feudal aristocracy are deadly serious vows made to accomplish unheard-of feats; only here do banners, crests and scutcheons become objects of veneration, chivalric orders bloom, and questions of rank and precedence become the most vital in life"1. Such an aristocratic milieu, irrespective of gender, would see the emergence of that noble game par excellence: chess, dubbed therein the "game of kings" and acknowledged as the "king of games".

Although uncertainty remains over the exact date, it is believed that this game first appeared in India whence it quickly spread eastward to China and Japan, reaching Persia by the sixth century. The agency of Islamic warfare subsequently bore it into the West via the Iberian peninsula. By the eleventh century there are reports of it in Italy and southern France prior to its arrival in every other European country.

Despite the vague consensus of opinion in their favour, those etymologies that seek to ascribe the derivation of the various names for chess to shah (king in Persian) or to sheikh (tribal elder or chief in Arabic) leave much to be desired. In fact the term chess serves to denote not only the chessmen but also the game itself and the move that consists in putting a piece "in check". We need therefore to give separate consideration to each of these aspects clarified by its real meaning.

1) The game of chess is called Shatranj in Persian and ash-Shatranj in Arabic. The Indian precursor of this game, Chaturanga, means "army composed of four parts" [ex Sanskrit catvaras, four, and ranga, assembled], to wit: infantry, cavalry, elephants2 and chariots3.

In the description that Froissart left of it we read: "Thirty-two little figures [personnaiges] serving as chessmen unto the said board." Arabic has ashahs [Sanskrit jana] for personage, figure, personification.

2) From an Indian game of merels4 dating back to very ancient times comes the name Ashtapada [literally 'eight steps], the precursor of the chess-board and similarly divided into 64 squares (8 × 8). In Arabic, the same root crops up again in shatr [to divide] and in ash-Shatranj [the game of chess]. In Italian, scacco denotes both chessman and a square on the board. In heraldic terms "checky" [Spanish ajedrezado] is used to describe a coat of arms in a chequer-board configuration.

3) The expression "Check!" is used when a player attacks the enemy king, forcing the latter either to move squares or to protect itself by moving another piece forward. In Arabic hashahs means to be careful, protect oneself, withdraw, flee5.

The French "Échec au roi!" [Check! lit. check to the king] can be abbreviated to "Au roi!", the metonymical effect here being responsible for the lumping together of sheikh (or shah according to country) and check (Schach dem König! in German).

Let us now turn to the pieces that make up what has been called the "mirror of the world".

In the image of the actual practice of wars throughout history6, chess in its early form remained more akin to brutal hand-to-hand fighting7 regardless of all the allegorical transpositions that have essentially served as a framework for a flourishing courtly and epic literature. In the same way that it co-opted chivalry, the Church would subject chess to co-optation along moralistic lines with a view to the game’s legitimatization. In the second half of the thirteenth century there appeared a Liber de moribus hominum et officiis nobilium sive super ludo scacchorum [Book of the customs of men and the duties of nobles or the Book of Chess]8 which, through the agency of chess, was intended to be a "remarkable model of the customs and warfare of men" to quote its author the Italian Dominican friar Jacobus de Cessolis [Jacopo da Cessole]).

Pierre Champion9 expressed his attachment to "the dual aspect that a symbol-hungry epoch recognized in chess: the image of war and that of love".

The very complexity of the game, the high cost of the materials required for its manufacture rendering it a luxury item, meant that chess long remained the preserve of some sections of the aristocracy. "Literature shows that the ability to play chess is one of the essential elements in the education of a young knight, in the same way that arms drill or hunting skills were" stresses Jean-Michel Mehl in the introduction to his French translation of Jacobus de Cessolis' Book of Chess10. The nobility’s favourite game would come not only to conform to the knightly mind-set, but also hew closely to its customs and ideas. The alternation of colours (red, yellow, green) for pieces and chess-board alike would coincide with the appearance of the first coats of arms. The replacement of the "vizier"11 by the queen would reflect the growing importance of women in the "courts of love". The game of chess came to represent the confrontation of two "households" made up of those elements comprising feudal society with its set hierarchy. The "alphyn", a transposition of the Arabic al-fil [elephant] would change into the Old French fol before becoming the king or queen's fool [Fr. fou = Eng. bishop]. The "chariots" that occupy the four corners [rokna12 in Arabic] would be replaced by the rooks [Fr. tours, lit. towers]. For their part, the pawns [ex Old French péon / peonet] are the footsoldiers. The Sanskrit padga-ag [who goes on foot], Persian baidaq, and Arabic bidaq are the ancestors of the celebrated French BIDASSE [private (soldier), squaddie].


1. Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens (The Beacon Press, Boston, USA, 1950)

2. who represent the mythical elephant supporting the heavens.

3. The chariot came to replace the ship which originally symbolized Buddha ("the boat that leads to awakening"). Only the Russians have preserved the elephant [slon] and the ship [ladya] which implies that at some point in the remote past the game passed directly from India to Russia. The Chinese game still features elephants and chariots.

4. Also known variously in English as Nine Men's Morris, Nine Man Morris, Mill, Mills, Merelles, Merrills: a board game which consists in capturing the opponent's counters or in blocking their moves (like go) based on a strategic capability. An explanation for the absurd French saying "Faute de grives on mange des merles" [beggars can't be choosers], otherwise devoid of any corresponding reality, may be forthcoming if one bears in mind that the French slang term for war is grive and that this type of game is a substitute for war.

5. The Arabic sââq [he chased] is rendered in Spanish by jaque [check!]. The popular expression ¡Jaque de aquí! is equivalent to "Clear off!" [Fr. dégage!]. It will be recalled that in Spain the name for chess is ajedrez (distortion of ash-Shatranj).

6. The Chinese added a further twist to their version of the game with the addition of a river and two bombards.

7. "Checkmate" rarely occurred, victories being secured by confrontation and plunder.

8. First translated into English by William Caxton (from Jehan de Vignay's 1380 French translation) in 1474 as Game and Playe of the Chesse. For a modern English translation see The Book of Chess, trans. and ed. by H.L. Williams (Italica Press, NY, 2008).

9. in Charles d'Orléans joueur d'échecs, 1908.

10. Jacques de Cessoles, Le Livre du jeu d’échecs ou la société idéale au Moyen Âge, XIIIe siècle. Translated into French and with an introduction by Jean-Michel Mehl (Stock-Moyen Âge, Paris, 1995).

11. based on the Persian firz, there was no "vizier" in the original Indian game. The Middle Ages created fers (subject case of ferm meaning faithful, loyal: "a Quene ought to be chaste. wyse ... whan the kynge begynneth to meue. the Quene may folowe" Jacobus de Cessolis reminds us), then fiers [firm, formidable] when the newly "fierce" queen began to move over a wider area, thereafter fierge, vierge [virgin] before settling as dame or queen [Fr. reine].

12. This term is preserved in the French roque [castling], a move that consists in swapping the king with the rook in order to shelter the former in one corner [rokna] of the chess-board.


Alice Becker-Ho is currently publishing Guy Debord's correspondence (Volume 3 published in January 2003 by éditions Fayard, Paris) and has published 3 books on European slangs (éditions Gallimard, Paris - English publishers for which have still to be found), as well as the In Slumberpuzzleland fables, two books of poems (the second will be out shortly), translations into French of Edgar Allan Poe (all éditions Le Temps Qu'il Fait, Cognac), and a book of photos & texts on Gypsies ("Paroles de Gitans", éditions Albin Michel, Paris).

Thank you very much to John McHale for offering this for publication on Monocular Times, and for providing the above information about the author. John McHale is Alice Becker-Ho's English translator.


Sculpture at Ostrich Central
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