Moors and Moor-slayers

I’m lost in medieval Spain… I’ve been spending my days wandering in a daze through the dusty plains of al-Andalus.

Or at least that’s what it feels like.

I’m doing a writing job about Islamic Spain in the Middle Ages and I’m learning lots and lots.

The invasion of the Iberian Peninsula by the Arabs and Berbers in 711, and their subsequent 700 year reign over the territory left a deep mark on the Spanish tongue. There are an estimated 4000 words of Arab origin in Spanish!

A lot of them can be recognised by the presence of the ‘al’ prefix, or by the throaty letter ‘j’ sound. We’re talking jarra, ojalá, alfombra, alcachofa

And along with the berenjenas, jarabes, and ramblas, are the Spanish surnames with their roots in this period. As in English, most come from the medieval trades; Zapatero means ‘cobbler,’ for example. But have you ever met a ‘Matamoros,’ or ‘Moor-slayer’?

As this (incredibly retro-looking) video explains, Matamoros was a name given to Christian soldiers who had particular success on the battlefield against Muslim invaders.

We’re back to political correctness again, but when I first heard this name I was blown away that it was still in use. In English, even the word ‘Moor’ alone is taboo. After all, it’s a vague term used by Europeans to refer to ‘people-with-darker-skin-than-mine-who-probably-pray-facing-in-a-south-easterly-direction.’ No-one actually self-identifies as a Moor, so why would you call somebody one? Couple that with the word ‘killer’ and Matamoros is a real conversation-piece of a name!

Not that the English-speaking world doesn’t have its own shocking surnames, but as this article demonstrates, they tend to veer towards the scatalogical or sexual, rather than the bloodthirsty.

What the Glasscocks, Shufflebottoms, and Matamoros of this world all have in common is that they are inexorably on the wane. It’s a shame really. They are our links to the past, however uncomfortable (or indeed giggly) that past might make us feel. After all, who wants to live in a world full of only Smiths and Garcías? Not me.