Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


Verbal Energy

Libya's chess game

Has everyone glommed onto stalemate to describe the fight against Qaddafi because quagmire is already taken?

By Ruth Walker / May 9, 2011

In this video image taken from Turkish television, Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi is seen during an interview with the TV channel TRT, in Tripoli, Libya, March 8.

TRT/AP

Enlarge

The late management guru Peter Drucker used to advise hiring managers that, whenever consensus formed too quickly or too solidly around a particular job candidate, they should revisit their settled ideas about what the job really is and who should fill it.

Skip to next paragraph

I find myself remembering this counsel with regard to an open position that needs to be filled, not by a person, but by a word.

The word is stalemate. It's striking that so many people are using it to describe the situation in Libya. My Drucker-influenced impulse is to ask, "Are we sure about this?"

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, observed the other week that Libya is "moving towards stalemate." About the same time, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona spoke of a "significant degree of stalemate" in Libya. (That sounds like "a little bit pregnant.") And earlier, President Obama said, "You now have a stalemate on the ground militarily," although he added that Muammar Qaddafi "is still getting squeezed in all kinds of other ways."

Mr. Obama may be practicing a little "inoculation" here. By calling the situation in Libya a stalemate, he minimizes the chances of his opponents' being able to use the term to attack him over the issue.

Stalemate is a term from chess, arguably an early "war game." Chess came into English in the 13th century from the Old French esches, chessmen, plural of eschec, which referred to the game, the chessboard, or checkmate, "the move that wins the game by checking the opponent's king so that it cannot be protected," as Webster's New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition, puts it.

Checkmate comes from an Old French expression, eschec mat, from the Persian shah mat, "the king died" – a reference to one of the game's two main pieces. Another idea, though, cited by the Barnhart Etymological Dictionary, is that someone confused words for "to die" with those for "to be astonished," and that shah mat is really Persian for "the king is left helpless," or "the king is stumped."

Be that as it may, checkmate still carries a secondary meaning of "total defeat." No wonder another chess term, stalemate, meaning a standoff or impasse, seems more attractive. It certainly beats "quagmire." Stalemate suggests pursed-lip frustration, not fists banged on tables.

The stale of stalemate is not quite the stale of days-old bread – but it's not completely unrelated either. Stale, from a root meaning "to stand," referred originally to ale or wine that had "stood" long enough to settle – free of lees or dregs. Later stale referred to bread that had "stood" a while: not a good thing. The stale of stalemate probably comes from an Anglo-French word estale, meaning "standstill."

Webster's New World defines the chess meaning of stalemate as "any situation in which it is impossible for one of the players to move without placing his or her king in check: it results in a draw."

The Online Etymology Dictionary, however, includes this passage, which cites the Oxford English Dictionary: "A misnomer, since a stale is not a mate. 'In England from the 17th c. to the beginning of the 19th c. the player who received stalemate won the game' [OED]."

If the Libyan rebels can pull victory out of the present situation, it won't be just the "king" – Qaddafi – who would be astonished; it would be all of us.

Permissions

Read Comments

View reader comments | Comment on this story