• checkmate •
Pronunciation: chek-mayt • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun, mass
Meaning: 1. A chess move that puts the king in an inescapable position, thus ending a game. The exclamation of the player who makes such a move. 2. Utter defeat, a position that makes defeat inevitable.
Notes: Yesterday we examined an English noun that has been verbed. Today's is another: to checkmate someone is to make their success at something impossible, as to checkmate attempts to abolish art in the high school in favor of new football uniforms. This word is also used as a call indicating victory in a chess game: "Checkmate! You have no more moves."
In Play: Even though today's Good Word is basically a noun, it is used far more often as an interjection or verb: "Management checkmated the demands of the union negotiators by firing all of the latter." However, the noun is still available: "This seems to be a war that will never reach checkmate."
Word History: In Middle English today's word was chekmat, borrowed from Old French eschec mat. Since chekmat was a little too 'un-English' for us, it underwent folk etymology to become checkmate. French borrowed their word from Arabic shah mat "the king is dead". The Arabic phrase is made up of shah "king", a word borrowed from Persian (as in the Shah of Iran) plus mat "died" from mata "to die". The word for "chess" in Russian and other Slavic languages is shakhmaty "= checkmates or dead kings". (We hope no one checkmates Gianni Tamburini's suggestions for Good Words; that would preclude excellent choices like today's.)