In accordance with the theme of the Conference, a closer look at the chess queen is essential. Why does the most powerful piece on the chessboard have a female identity? Chess is an abstract strategy game, so the naming of the pieces should be arbitrary – merely a polite fiction. Yet the name of the chess queen, seen in a historical and geographical context, reveals some fascinating aspects of European culture. Arguably, we are given the story of the emancipation of women.
The “queen” was not always the queen. Asian and Eastern European languages refer to the queen as the “vizier” – a high ranking government officer – not necessarily female. Russian (ferz’) and Turkish (vezir) retain this derivation. The original vizier piece could move only one square in each direction.
As chess moved to medieval Europe the piece became more powerful – it could move any number of moves in any direction. During this period, it acquired a new identity – it became a queen, perhaps inspired by the powerful Eleanor of Aquitaine. Norway, Denmark, the British Isles and Iceland use the terms “king” and “queen”, easier perhaps having lived under monarchies since the Vikings.
The most common name for the piece in Western Europe is “dame” (or its cognates). As in the musical South Pacific, there ain’t nothing like a dame. In French, the piece is called the “dame”. This change in terminology happened centuries before the unfortunate Marie Antoinette, the last Queen of France – who might otherwise be blamed for depriving chess of its noble character.
Most European languages use more than one word for the piece – not only “queen” but also “dame” or “lady”. The subtle linguistic differences between queen and dame would require a more extended exploration of aristocratic and political history beyond the scope of this article.
However, we should not overlook one simple explanation. The advent of chess notation brought about the need to distinguish between pieces. In many languages, the word for king and the word for queen have the same root. For example, in Spanish, the word for king is “rey” and the word for queen is “reina”. Chess notation requires clarity and so a word with a different initial letter meets this requirement.
The Queen Names map is not intended to be definitive. It illustrates that chess terminology imports the history and culture of the world. Long live the queen, the lady, the dame and the vizier.
Two cultural groups held out against foreign influence and retained their own words to refer to the queen: Estonia (Flag) and Georgia (Jackal). The Flag and Jackal – a tempting title for a book on chess name history – or a club for the independent-minded.