Chapter 3

3. The origin of the French game name dames
 “Sir Ferumbras” taught me that I can find the etymon of the word dames in the 14th c. If an Englishman is using the French game name jeu de dames about 1380, I may assume it was generally known in France about 1350. Or earlier.
The subject of my Ph D study was the etymology of the game name dames. I summarize the linguist’s task when he goes hunting. I hide details offstage.
A chess player pulls my sleeves: “I give a hoot about your etymology, it has nothing to do with chess”. My answer: “The etymology of the game name dames has everything to do with chess. I shall mention below the etymon of the name of the chess queen, do you believe!”
I continue. The word dame is a semantic extension, that is a new meaning of an existing word. In the 14th c., French had two words that are eligible as the etymon.
First dame, a word borrowed by English, Spanish and other languages for a woman of rank. I don’t know about English, but in my country, the Netherlands, a woman that is called “dame” is not necessarily seen as a woman, but obiter dictum.

dame middeleeuwen
Medieval lady

 The second 14th c. word I should consider is dam, pronounced with the dark vowel as in the English word calm. The word dam was in the 13th c. borrowed from Flemish ‒Flemish is Dutch spoken in the northern part of the country called Belgium today‒ workers hired to drain marches. In our days, Dutch experts advise cities from all over the world how to keep the rising water away with dames and dikes. Thousand years ago, “we” did the same.


 Who sees no further than his nose makes a hasty choice: the etymon of dames is dame. And therefore, the literal meaning of jeu de dames is not “game with chess queens” but “game played by woman from the better classes”. But it is not so easy as that: the etymon of (jeu de) dames is dam, click here for my explanation. By the way, Dutch etymologists agreed with my etymological proposal, see Philippa e.a. in the Bibliography.
A crop of my etymology that is interesting for chess players, is the word dame meaning promotion row, i.e. row where the singleton is promoted to doubleton. Up to now a French draughts player can say: “I’ll go with this piece to the dame”.

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