Published February 22, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott
While snorkeling I recently saw five Moorish idols zipping along from one coral head to another. With their triangular body shape and black-and-yellow markings, the 8-inch-long fish reminded me of the traffic signs warning drivers of a possible animal encounter: CAUTION: MOORISH IDOL CROSSING.
Watching the perky fish commute made me wonder where they got that odd name. If Moors are a historical Muslim group, and if “idol” is taken to mean a false god, the name Moorish idol for a fish seems offensive. But looking into the name on the Internet opened a can of worms. The Hawaiian name, kihikihi, was easier. It means angular, curved or zigzag.
The Hawaiians chose this versatile word to describe three fish, the Moorish idol, kihikihi; hammerhead sharks, mano kihikihi; and threadfin jacks, ulua kihikihi. The Moorish idol’s scientific name, Zanclus cornutus, is also straightforward. The first name comes from the Greek “zancion,” meaning sickle, referring to the white, sickle-shaped filament that trails behind the fish’s upper fin. Because of this long fin, people often mistake Moorish idols for angelfish or butterflyfish. They are not related. The Moorish idol is its own unique family of one.
The species name, cornutus, comes from the Latin “cornut,” meaning horn. Adult Moorish idols have a tiny hornlike spine in front of each eye, larger in males.
Along with surgeonfish, Moorish idols are the Einsteins of reef fish, having large brains compared with body size. Both fish families need high IQs because they’re roving omnivores without harems and therefore must distinguish colors, shapes and patterns to find food, mates and places to hide from predators.
After learning verifiable facts about the Moorish idol, I returned to my search of its name. A Wikipedia entry said the Moors of Africa believed the fish brought happiness, but with no reference cited, the statement is void.
I read nearly endless opinions, conjectures and rants about the word “Moor” and settled on academia, the Oxford Islamic Studies Online website. Moor, the authors write, is a medieval term once used to describe dark-skinned Muslims of Arab or Berber decent who invaded Spain in 711. The origin of the term is uncertain, but it probably meant people from Mauritania or Morocco.
So the name Moorish idol might indeed be insensitive. Or not. I went again with Oxford and read their dictionary’s second definition of idol: “a person or thing that is greatly admired, loved or revered.”
Could this mean the name might have come from early Moroccans who greatly admired the fish? Not likely. Moorish idols are found only in the Indian and Pacific oceans.