Q&A: “Checkered” or “chequered”? “Checked” or “check”?

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, check please…

Q: Hi AWC, I was watching the Formula 1 racing last weekend, and I was wondering about the end of the race.

A: When they spray each other with champagne? Yes, it IS a waste.

Q: No, not that. The chequered flag used to signify the end of a race. 

A: Ah yes – a “chequered” pattern is defined typically as a grid of alternating coloured squares – e.g. black and white flag in Formula 1 or a red and white tablecloth at Giovanni’s Pizzeria. 

Q: They make great garlic bread.

A: Good to know.

Q: And is there a difference in spelling, depending on where you live?

A: Garlic bread is spelt the same everywhere.

Q: No! In “chequered”?

A: Oh, right. There certainly is. If you’re in North America, it would be a “checkered flag”. 

Q: Is this the same if you have a “chequered history”?

A: Yes. Someone with a history of alternating fortunes might be described as having a “chequered past” (usually in a negative sense) here in Australia – or a “checkered past” in North America. The term was first used in 1831.

Q: It sounds like this word might have its own chequered history…

A: Yeah, it’s a bit of a mess. So let’s go back to where it all began.

Q: The start line? The time trial to determine pole position?

A: No, the late 12th century. 

Q: Ah yes, that makes more sense.

A: That’s when we first encounter a specific table called a “checker/chequer”. It was covered with a squared/grid tablecloth and used to count money and “check” accounts. This would later lead to the British word “exchequer” – Old French for “chessboard” – and basically the word used for their government’s treasury, even today.

Q: So, did the “ck” spelling come first?

A: It appears so, and Britain was so enamoured with all things French that they preferred the “qu” instead. 

Q: Quite questionable really. What happened next?

A: By the late 14th century, the noun “checker/chequer” had stopped being just a counting table and now also meant “a pattern of squares” – typically alternating in colour. The first adjective assigned to describe such a pattern was “checkered/chequered”.

Q: That actually seems to make sense. But this is English and I’m nervous that it’s a trap.

A: Your instincts are right. Because not long after – in the early 15th century in fact – “checked” ALSO came along as an adjective to describe the same pattern.

Q: Two adjectives for the same thing?! Checkered/chequered AND checked/chequed???

A: Well actually, everyone used “checked” for this – no “qu” variant.

Q: Why?

A: Because English. 

Q: Of course.

A: By 1610, the noun “check” joined “checker/chequer” in meaning “a pattern of squares”. And more recently, we’ve seen “check” used as a THIRD adjective to describe the pattern – although usually only for “check shirts”, not blankets or tablecloths. Got that?

Q: Check!

A: Good. And again, no “qu” variant is used – “cheque” being solely reserved for that outdated pretend money thing.

Q: Oh, that reminds me of my cousin Logan who paid for all 137 of his tattoos using cheques. But then when he tried to use a cheque to get some more ink, he was told he was overdrawn. Bahahaha.

A: Hilarious.

Q: So, what about the game “Checkers”? Is that played on a checkered/chequered board? Or a checked board?

A: Technically, it’s known as a “checkerboard” – or a chequerboard in British English. The squares themselves are called checkers/chequers.

Q: So the British call the game “Chequers” then?

A: Haha, no! That would be far too obvious. Outside America, it’s known as “Draughts” – to avoid all confusion.

Q: Of course it is. Any other fun facts?

A: “Checkered/chequered” is actually regarded as a printing pattern – such as for a flag or tablecloth. For this reason, “checked” is often used for woven fabric instead.

Q: So where does “gingham” fit into all this?

A: “Gingham” is also a checked pattern that may look similar at first, but typically deals with a white, solid and a third INTERMEDIATE shaded square – created through the weaving process. Meanwhile, “plaid” is also similar, typically woollen, with varying widths and colours in the weaving process.

Q: Is it true that dead men don’t wear plaid?

A: Well it’s the name of a 1982 Steve Martin film. So it’s as true as the Devil wearing Prada.

Q: Actually, I think my picnic blanket has a “tartan” pattern – like a Scottish kilt. How does that differ from all this? 

A: Tartan is really just a form of plaid – with interlocking STRIPES crossing at right angles. Unlike plaid, different varieties of tartan represent Scottish clans or families.

Q: So to recap, here in Australia the pattern itself is a “check” or “chequer”. And it can be described as “chequered”, “checked” OR even “check” – depending on the context.

A: That checks out.

Q: Well plaid – we’ve checked off this topic nicely!

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