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Mind your language

The Spanish village that thought it was called ‘Kill Jews’

They were wrong. But they voted to change the name anyway

11 July 2015

9:00 AM

11 July 2015

9:00 AM

A village has changed its name because it seemed offensive. But I think the villagers were under a misapprehension.

The village is in Spain: Castrillo Matajudíos. Of its population of 57, 29 voted to change the name to Castrillo Mota de Judíos because they did not like the idea of the former name meaning ‘Kill Jews’. Another settlement, in Extremadura, is called Valle de Matamoros, but its inhabitants are not planning to change it lest it be taken to urge the killing of Moors.


The silly thing is that the Spanish place-name element mata does not mean ‘kill’ at all. It is quite common. There is a quiet little place in the Cantabrian region called Mataporquera. You might think it came from mata ‘kill’ and porquera, ‘piggy’. The swinish part is right, bearing a close resemblance to porquería, ‘pigswill’ or ‘rubbish’. But the mata part innocently means ‘woodland’. So Mataporquera would in English be Hogwood. Matamoros would be Moorwood, and Matajudíos would be Jewood. In Britain, Jew does not seem to enter into many place-names. There is the street Old Jewry in London, but Market Jew in Penzance derives from a Cornish word for Thursday. The new Spanish name Mota de Judios means Jewshill.

Why mata means ‘wood’ is another question. It comes from a late Latin word meaning ‘mat’, the thing the cat sits on. We speak of a mat of vegetation, and the Spanish still speak of the matorral, a more or less bosky brushwood. To our ears mat sounds so English that it is a surprise to find it comes from Latin, and even more of a surprise to learn that the Romans took it from Phoenician. The Hebrew word mittah ‘a bed’ is related to that, as the place one stretches out, nitah.

So it’s as ignorant to take Matajudíos to mean ‘Kill Jews’ as it would be to take Kilmany in Scotland as encouragement to kill lots of people. The Celtic element kil- generally means a church, and comes from Latin too, from cella, ‘cell’. But in some place-names, such as Killiecrankie, I’m told, the kill- comes from coille, ‘wood’. So you could say that the Spanish mata does mean kill — in Gaelic.


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