The chess queen


 Medieval chess was a slow game. The bishop moved two squares diagonally and had the power of making a jump over a piece on the intervening square, like a draughts piece. The queen moved one square diagonally forwards or backwards, like the short king in draughts. For this reason it took time before a player could involve these pieces in the battle.

 In the late Middle Ages, chess underwent a sudden reform: in France or in Spain ˗the present generation of chess historians intend to Spain˗ the bishop's and queen's move were extended. The queen, in the medieval game a weak piece, became the strongest unit on the board.

 The medieval chess player called the queen fierge, fers (or a variant). Writers preferred empress or mistress or queen, as the piece was the king's companion.

 The birth of a new queen went together with the introduction of a new name: Spanish dama, French dame. "How can that be?", said chess historians. "The weak medieval queen had a name in line with her standing, for example empress, and the mighty new queen had to contend herself with a name only meaning woman of rank". To cope with this letdown, they lost theirselves in dreams. See for instance The new queen was as brave as Jeanne d'Arc, or could be a homage to the Spanish queen Isabella, or was under the protection of Virgin Mary. Verily not bad for a wooden puppet. The dreamers forgot that the new name sprang up in the language of chess players, and these chess players called the old queen fierge or fers and not empress or another lofty name.

                 Jeanne d'Arc                                                                   Queen Isabella of Castile                                                                           Virgin Mary


 Etymology is a scientific field with an evolution of more than a century. For this reason it is disappointing that contemporary chess historians do not apply linguistic tools but indulge in fantasies when they explain the name of the new chess queen. Therefore the author of this site did the job.

 The etymologist has a convenient method of working. The Spanish name dama ˗to start from Spanish˗ is a new sense of an existing Spanish word dama.

 The etymologist starts with listing. 15th century Spanish had two words dama, one meaning 'woman of rank' and another meaning 'row where the draughts piece or the chess pawn is promoted'.

 Then he answers the question if dama = 'chess queen' is an extension of meaning, i.e. a new sense, of dama = 'woman of rank' or of dama = 'row where the chess queen is promoted'. The choice is a logical matter: a new sense is generated by the semantically most related word. The new chess queen is the transformation of a pawn reaching the promotion row, and dama = 'chess queen' is consequently an extension of meaning of the word dama = 'promotion row'.

 The semantic transition from place (promotion row) to person, animal or thing on a place (the promoted pawn) is a trivial phenomenon. If an athlete breaks the record at the hundred metres in a full stadium and everybody springs to his feet, a reporter spontaneously writes: "The stadium was in ecstasies", making the semantic transition from persons on a place (the spectators) to that place (the stadium). Obviously the word dama for the new chess queen is a spontaneous creation, not a careful choice.

 What is the origin of the word dama = 'row where the draughts piece or the chess pawn is promoted'? Well, Spanish draughts and chess players borrowed it from French (dame) and the word came into being in the jargon of French draughts players.

 (See for background Stoep 2005,2007:38-48).