Why is Bishop called "bishop"?


Hello! I would like to ask English speaking people if they know why Bishop is called "bishop"? What is the etymology of this word?

When I look this word in the English-Russian dictionary it is translated there as something like a "clergyman" or "priest".

In Russian this piece is called either "officer" or "elephant" (elephant is more

often). So why is this piece called "bishop" in English? What is the connection

between this piece and a "priest"?! 

I'm sure Bill Wall will know lots of detail about the history of this Wink.  As far as I know, when chess was introduced into Western Europe the design of the pieces began to be modelled on the people found in a Medieval Court.  The Bishop was the religious representative at Court.  Over the years the shape of the piece was simplified to the shape of a mitre (the hat the the bishops wore).

Hello, Eugen! Your question is really very interesting!! I hope you will find this informative & interesting as well.

Actually, questions about the origin of the universe, life on earth, & language are all time asked but never answered scientifically in a very satisfied way-- maybe we are asking the wrong questions or we are just still behind that age, the age of perfect knowledge where everything is cristal-clear. Well, hope we all live to see the truth without looking in a cristal-ball.

In Morocco the chess game is a somewhat new game. It was brought in by the french colonizer-- as you may already know Morocco is a former French colony. We got complete independance in 1957. The colonizer was forced to leave but the chess game was warmly welcomed & embraced, & so it lingered on. And so it goes.

Dear Eugen! If you look carefully to the elements of the chess game you will certainly come out with the following view. Very basically, the elements of the chess represent the world's societies of the mid of last millennium, especially in Europ & Assia--all of which had undergone the very same system.

The king at the top of the hierarchy had the ultimate power if & only if the church(bishops) & the knights(generals) land him such a power, a symbolic power indeed. The bishops, in today terms, were a bench of politicians gathered to dectate the law & set the norms. But, at that time, the bishops were found falling far short from fulfilling any atandard. Frankly speaking, they were two-faced type of men, very manipulative. This is why their movements on the chess board are not horisontal nor vertical, they are diagonal mirroring their snake-like moves. I think it is because of their position on the chess board(next to the king & queen) & because of their diagonal movements(snake-like moves) they are called bishops.

I hope this will contribute in enriching this forum.

I hope this will be an invitation for more input from other memebers of the chess club.



The origin of the name of the chess bishop is obscure.  It was introduced in the 15th century, taking the move of the courier and placed where the alfil used to be at the set up of the chess pieces on a chessboard.  The appearance of the Muslim fil was formless but with two protuberances said to symbolize the elephant from which the piece derives its name.  Perhaps these suggest the Bishop’s mitre, hence Bishop, the name used in English-speaking countries since the new game gained acceptance.  The original move of the bishop was only three squares diagonally.  By 1500 it could move to any open square diagonally.

The earliest Indian chesspieces were called shah (king), wazir (counsellor), fil (part bishop move), asp (knight), rukh (rook), and piyade (pawn). The earliest Persian names were shah, farzin, pil, asp, rukh, and piyada. In Arabic they were shah, firzan, fil, faras, rukhkh, and baidaq. Countries of the western world translated the earliest names as closely as possible.

In July 2002, an ivory piece less than 2 inches in size was discovered in Butrint, an ancient Mediterranean city in souther Albania. The piece is dated to 465 AD. If this is really a chess piece, then it is the oldest chess piece found anywhere in the world. It even pushes back the date of chess. The piece has a cross on top of it and was found in an old Byzantine or Roman palace.

The earliest known chesspieces (chatrang) were found at Afrasaib, near Samarkand in Uzbekistan. What was found were seven pieces consisting of a king, chariot, vizier, horse, elephant, and 2 soldiers. made of ivory. It is dated about 760 AD. A coin, dated 761 was found with the chesspieces.

The Mozarab chess pieces, also known as the pieces of Saint Genadio, may be as old as the beginning of the 10th century. The four small pieces were made of ivory and preserved in the Mozarabic monastary in Leon, Spain.

The oldest European chessmen may be some Italian chess pieces made of bone with ivory topping. It was found at Venafro, Italy and is dated about 980 AD. It is displayed in the Museo archeologico di Napoli. The pieces were discovered in a Roman tomb in 1932. The controversy is how to explain how it was possible that chess pieces of Arabic shape were discovered in a tomb of Roman age. Radiocarbon measurements yielded a date of 885 to 1017 AD.

One of the earliest authentic European chesspieces are the Lewis chesspieces, which are now in the British Museum and the National Museum of Antiquites in Edinburgh. 67 Lewis chesspieces are in the British Musueum, the other 11 in the National Musueum. The pieces come from four different chess sets. The set contains the oldest known ecclesiastical bishop.

The Lewis pieces were found in March, 1831 in an underground chamber on the west coast of the Isle of Lewis (Uig Bay) in the Outer Hebrides islands of Scotland. A local peasant, Calum nan Sprot, who was looking for his cow found a small chamber 15 feet below the top of a sandbank that had been partly washed away. The pieces, perhaps made in 1150 by the Norse, were made of walrus tusk and believed to be of Icelandic in origin. The shepherd was terrified by the expressions on the pieces and fled from the spot. He told his minister, Alexander MacLeod, who returned to the sight and exorcised the site, then sold the pieces (67 chessment and 14 plain draughtsmen) to the British Museum for 84 British pounds.

Another early chess set is the so-called Charlemagne chessmen, which is in the Cabinet des Medailles, Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. It is a massive elephant ivory carving. Charlemage probably never played chess. The so-called Charlemagne chessmen was at the Saint Denis Abbey near Naples since the end of the 13th century. The pieces are dated around 1100 and were probably made in Salerne, Italy. The pieces may have come to Paris as a gift to French King Philip II or Phillip III. Both kings stopped in Salerne. In 1598 there were 30 pieces. In 1794, after the French Revolution, there were 16 pieces. The set consists of 2 kings, 2 queens, 4 elephants, 4 knights, 3 chariots, and 1 foot soldier.

A piece that is part of the Charlemange set is a King Elephant. It carries an Arab (Kufric) inscription which translates as "made by Yusuf al-Bahilis." Its origin is India and it may not even be a chess piece. It has an Eastern leader being carried by an elephant, surrounded by a row of horsemen acting as supporters.

One of the first chessmen designs came from John Calvert in 1790. The king and queen had openwork crowns, the bishop had a deep clefted mitre, and the rook was a tower on a pedestal. He produced his chess sets from 1790 to 1841.

In the early 19th century the most common chess design was the St. George chessmen.

In early 1849 Nathaniel Cook designed the Staunton set at a time when players were refusing to play with each other's pieces because of the difficulty in distinguishing the various chesspieces. The main patterns prior to the Staunton pattern were the Lund, Merrifield, Calvert, Barleycorn, Selenius and St George patterns. Cook used symbols in their plainest form. The king had a crown, the queen had a coronet, the bishop had a mitre, the knight was a horse's head, the rook was a castle, and the pawn was a ball. The horses' heads were based on the Elgin Marbles. These were designs found in the Parthenon frieze and taken to England by Thoms Bruce, 7th Lord of Elgin, in 1806. The pawns were developed from the freemason's square and compass. Every symbol was supported on a plain stem rising from a heavy, wide base which gave stability. The design impressed John Jaques, leading wood carver, that he immediately suggested making the pieces on a commercial basis.

Nathniel Cook was Staunton's editor at the Illustrated London Times.

Jaques was a friend of the English chess master, Howard Staunton, who sanctioned the request that the design be called the Staunton chessmen. John Jaques was also the brother-in-law of Nathaniel Cook. Jaques obtained a copyright for the design, registering the design under the Ornamental Designs Act of 1842, and began manufacturing the set in London. The wooden pieces were turned from ebony and boxwood and very heavily weighted. Some ivory sets were made from African ivory. King sizes were 3.5 inches or 4.5 inches (for match or tournament play). The first Staunton Pattern chesspieces from Jaques was offered to the public on September 29, 1849. 

well in Russai were i lived the people called an <officer> mostly.



additionally, just like in Russian, the piece now referred to as the "Bishop" in English, was also called the "Elephant" in about all it's earliest known forms. The Persians called it "Pil" while the Arabs called it the "fil" (or "al-fil" in the Spanish derivative of the word) - and all these names mean the "Elephant."


Now, when chess came to Europe, surprise! there were no elephants! But one of the more common shapes of the piece now we called the Bishop was, as SonofPearl noted, reminiscent of the official hat (the mitre) worn by Christian Bishops. It's no wonder, especially with the influence of the Catholic Church in those days, that the name Bishop would catch on....


Bishop is the English name for that piece. We already know the Russian name is "Elephant" (in Russian, of course). But in Italy it became known as "Alfiere" or the "Standard Bearer" (to me it looks a lot like al-fil); in Germany it became known as the "Läufer" or the "Runner" and in France it took the name the "Fou" or the "Fool."


There was no real rhyme or reason the the adaptation of these names - mostly just what caught on in different areas.

So were there any other rules that were altered such as the bishops only being allowed to move 3 spaces? It would be interesting to play a game like that and see how it affected strategy...
There is a good book called "The Immortal Game" by David Shenk about the history and origins of chess. I am currently reading this book and I think it would be good for this type of subject.

I think that there is very little known history of the bishop. Nobody really knows.




I read about the chess meaning (black and white mean the life has bad side and good side)
King in the middle mean the King is the center of the kingdom
Queen is the most powerful because in the medieval the queen has the power in making decisions more than other
Bishop meaning the church because it gives the power to protect the King by the God's laws , notice the bishop can not move in straight line and it moves in  diagonal line ,  because the church always has diagonal way to get what it needs
The knight mean the army power beside the King
Rock mean the people and the rock (people) move in  straight line , and when the king feel there is a threat , the king go to the people and  castling
Pawn means the soldier