The origin of the continental name for draughts


 The names for draughts on the European continent mostly stem from the French game name (jeu de) dames [Harold Murray [1952:73-74] or the Spanish game name (juego de) damas [Govert Westerveld 1997,]. The litteral meaning of this game name is "game with chess queens", for both the proof that draughts originated from chess. Murray: draughts was born in France. Westerveld: no, in Spain.

 What they present as an etymology is merely guesswork, they did not realize that a sound etymology can only be the result of a recondite inquiry. The author of this site gave an account of this inquiry in his dissertation [Stoep 1997]. Due to the interwoven draughts and chess terminology in Romance (French, Italian and Spanish), and to a lesser degree also English, this investigation was time-consuming (from 1986 until 1997) and complicated. Here some research questions with their answers.

what is the source language of the continental european name for draughts?

 The oldest reference is French: a romance of chivalry from c. 1380 mentions the game name (jeu de) dames.

The game name dames is an extension of meaning of a medieval french word. what are the candidates?

 Medieval French had the word dam = dam, dike and the word dame = woman of rank. Dam was pronounced with the dark vowel of English bath. Current English does not use the clear vowel aa of dame, a frequent vocal in Romance and in German and Dutch, the Germanic sister languages of English.

How was the game name dames = draughts pronouned in the 14th century?

 With the dark vowel a, the name was spelled as dammes. Conclusion: the game name is an extension of meaning of the word dam = dam, dike.

  but in current french the game name dames is pronounced with the clear vowel aa. how to explain this?

 Current French has very few words with the dark vowel a of English bath and a lot of words with the clear vowel aa. In the Middle Ages however, the great majority of these words were pronounced with the dark vowel a. All these words replaced their dark vowel a by the clear vowel aa. The present game name dames was one of those words, the earlier form dammes became dames.

 During such a sound shift there can be hesitation about the correct pronunciation of a word, with doublets (double forms) as a consequence. 16th century Flemish for example used both daamspel and damspel, a proof that one French neighbour used the new dames and the other neighbour the old dammes.

 Also the Dutch form dam proves that the game name and the connected name for the piece (and the board) were originally pronounced by the French with the dark a, so as dammes and dam. When a Dutchman borrowed a French word with the dark a or the clear aa, he kept the French vowel. See the table: Dutch maintained in these two loan words the clear French vowel.

Two Dutch borrowing of the word dame

French form Time Dutch form

dame = woman of rank

dame = chess queen

13th century

18th century



 Dutch borrowed the French word for the draughts piece too. In borrowings from French, Dutch kept the French dark vowel a or the clear vowel aa. If the French word for the draughts piece had been dame, with the clear vowel aa, the Dutch draughts players would have called the draughts piece dame, with the clear vowel aa. The Dutch form, however, was dam, with the dark vowel a. See the table below. Wich means that in the time of the borrowing the French word for draughts piece was prounounced with the dark a.

       Dutch borrowing of the word dam = draughts piece
French form Time Dutch form
dam 15th century(?) dam

for what reason the french needed the game name (jeu de) dammes?

 Draughts has been transferred from the alquerque board onto the chequered chess board. Draughts played at a chequered board might intrinsically remain the same game, the difference with the game at the lined board is rather great, so that people gave the "new" game a name of its own.