• stalemate •
stayl-mayt • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: Aside from a lackluster spouse, this Good Word means 1. a chess position in which a player is not in checkmate but has no move, or 2. a deadlock, impasse, a standoff in which neither side can make a move.
Notes: We don't have many words derived from stalemate, but we can use it as a verb, as 'to stalemate someone with a question they cannot answer'. This allows us the adjective stalemated, as 'negotiations that are stalemated after two weeks of discussions'.
In Play: Stalemates most often occur in negotiations that break down: "The divorce negotiations between the Bickertons reached a stalemate on the question of which of them would take the children." As a verb, today's Good Word suggests bewildering someone to the point that they are unable to respond: "Roswell stalemated Friedlander with the question of what was Captain Hook's name before he lost his hand."
Word History: Today's Good Word comes from Anglo-French estale "standstill", a word probably borrowed from English stall in the sense of "cause to stop". The mate was added later under the influence of checkmate even though stalemate is a misnomer because a stalemate is not a mate at all in chess. Mate, in the sense it is used in chess, is a reduction of checkmate. This word was borrowed directly from Old French eschec mat with the initial E peeled away. French had added that initial E to some other European variant of the original Arabic shah-mat "the king is dead". The word for "chess" in Russian is still shakhmaty. Yes, the shah "king" is the same as in the name of the Shah of Iran, the last king of Iran, overthrown in 1979. (Let's not leave Sarah Goldman in a stalemate but thank her generously for suggesting today's fascinating word.)
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