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My Web of Words – 10 – Table

One of the most popular games in Lebanon is tawleh, which 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’; 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, also rarely used as a common noun, but widely used as a proper name.

In classical Latin, tabula denoted a plank of wood used for inscriptions or games. The former meaning is picked up in the French phrase les Tables de la loi [the Tables of the law] and the latter in the word tablier, denoting any flat surface used for games – chess, backgammon and the like. During the Roman Empire, the most popular of these games, and the one to which Emperor Claudius might have dedicated a treatise - now lost – was called tabula. When this word was uttered in Ancient Rome, therefore, it brought to mind the game, not the piece of furniture. Nero is said to have won fortunes at it; I imagine his courtiers would have been taking grave risks had they obliged him to lose.

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. (See the illustration above).

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. According to one widely held legend, it was thanks to this persecution that fixed-leg gaming tables were replaced by portable tables with folding legs, which could be carried off and hidden at any sign of danger. And no doubt this is why such an “object of perdition” appears in Bruegel the Elder’s 1562 painting The Triumph of Death. (See below, bottom right of the frame).

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’.

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  1. #1 by Sohaib on September 29th, 2009

    I am a pakistani, in Beirut on a business trip for some time. I was looking for Lebanese literature and stumbled upon your blog. I absolutely love this blog. Not to mention that i also have a fetish for etymology, and i am always waiting for the my web of words series posts.
    Wish you best of luck.

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