Amin Maalouf’s web of words

source: aminmaalouf.net, dice players at Pompeii Italy

Amin Maalouf, the Lebanese writer, wrote at his blog (with Amin Maalouf), a serie of articles about words that web the languages. One of the words is Tawleh (Table or Backgammon) which is one of the most popular games in Lebanon.

He continues that “tawleh in French is called Trictrac or Jacquet, and which, these days, is known throughout the world as Backgammon. Tawleh is the everyday word for ‘table طاولة’; in literary Arabic, it is written as tawilah, a word that most likely comes from Latin, given its obvious similarity to tabula.

The Latin word, from which we get ‘table’ and various related terms in many languages, didn’t always denote the four-legged piece of furniture that we know today; the Romans actually called this mensa, which led to the Spanish word mesa and the rarely used French and English word commensal, used to describe someone eating and drinking at the same table as another. The Arabic equivalent to commensal is nadim نديم, also rarely used as a common noun, but widely used as a proper name.

The evidence strongly suggests that this game was played in Antiquity and the Middle Ages just as it is nowadays. A 13th Century Spanish treatise, the Libro de los juegos, contains an illustration of a game called todas tablas. The pieces are laid out exactly as they are in modern tawleh.

We know that the game proved immensely popular in England, to the degree that Richard the Lionheart wanted to forbid it to people not of noble birth; and to the degree that, in 1526, Cardinal Wolsey ordered all gaming tables to be destroyed, and those who indulged in this “vice” to be punished.

Nobody called it ‘backgammon’ back then. That word didn’t appear until the middle of the 17th Century, until which time the English knew the game by the same name as the rest of the world: ‘tables’”. More illustrations and texts here.

Leave a Comment