The DRAE defines mata, which seems to come from Late Latin matta, in part as:

1. f. Planta que vive varios años y tiene tallo bajo, ramificado y leñoso.

2. f. Planta de poca alzada o tamaño. Mata de tomate. Mata de claveles.

3. f. Ramita o pie de una hierba, como de la hierbabuena o la albahaca.

4. f. Porción de terreno poblado de árboles de una misma especie. Tiene una mata de olivos excelente.

Translations of the word into English include ‘small bush, shrub, undergrowth, underbrush, plant, clump, sprig, tuft.’ Even English-speaking Texans may recognize, especially once it’s pointed out to them, that mata appears in Matagorda, or ‘thick underbrush,’ which is the name of an island off the Texas coast. And if we change gender and jump to South America, we can also recognize our word in Mato Grosso, the name of a large high plain (Spanish altiplano, Portuguese planalto) in Brazil and of the Brazilian state that largely overlaps it.

The Spanish noun derived from mata, matorral, is unsurprisingly defined as

1. m. Campo inculto lleno de matas y malezas.

2. m. Conjunto de matas intrincadas y espesas.

In the English-language Wikipedia article on matorral we find: “Matorral is a Spanish word… for shrubland, thicket or bushes. It is used in naming and describing a Mediterranean climate ecosystem in Southern Europe… The term matorral followed Spanish colonization of the Americas, and is used to refer to both Mediterranean (climate) woodlands and scrub, and xeric shrublands ecosystems in Mexico, Chile, and elsewhere.” Wordnik gives about thirty English-language citations that include matorral.

The base word mata has made the jump from Spanish to English, primarily the English of Texas, in the forms mott and motte, where it means ‘a small grove of trees on a prairie.’ There are towns in Texas with the names Elm Mott, Round Mott, Mustang Mott, and Long Mott, and there was once also a Buffalo Mott. Sutton’s Mott is said to be haunted by the ghost of a murdered man.

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    Jan 21, 2013 @ 21:58:46

    Not only does matorral refer to shrublands, thickets or bushes, it suggests the word littoral, “pertaining to the seashore”.

    It’s a new version of “shoreacres” – “littoral-matorral”!


  2. Steve Schwartzman
    Jan 21, 2013 @ 22:10:22

    I’ll say that “shoreacres” definitely sounds more natural (and there’s another one of those adjective-from-noun words in -al) than the sing-songy “littoral-matorral.”


  3. Juan Luis
    Jan 22, 2013 @ 05:55:10

    In the Catalan of the Balearic Islands where I live, mata means a specifical kind of mata, in Spanish lentisco (Pistacia lentiscus), that is mastic.


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