Monthly Archives: November 2022

butterfly, part 6

From Europe to India and beyond: bugs, birds, wings, flowers, gods

Butterflies can have an incredible range. It’s not just that they’re found on every continent except Antarctica (I presume the penguins simply ate them all, ha ha), it’s that some species of butterflies migrate for thousands of kilometres (or, when migrating across the US, thousands of miles). Monarch butterflies are famous for this, covering much of North America, but the British variety of the painted lady butterfly migrates even farther, from the edges of the desert in northern Africa to beautiful pastures in northern Europe and back, nearly 7,500 kilometres each way.

How does one butterfly fly so far? It doesn’t. No butterfly completes the whole migration. In fact, they can take up to six generations to make the whole round trip. Somehow the route is followed – again and again – by chains of generations of butterflies in a massive instinctive relay race of painted ladies of the sky. What a butterfly effect, for a movement to be carried across the globe by a chain of individuals that are connected in spite of their disconnection! 

It takes the butterflies a year to make their round trip. Meanwhile, you could fly from, say, London, England, to Ahemedabad, Gujarat, India, a distance of 9,000 kilometres one way, in just over nine hours. On the other hand, the languages of the two places – English and Gujarati – are separated by about 5,000 years of language evolution (depending on whom you ask) from their common root in Proto-Indo-European.

On the other other hand, the Gujarati word for ‘butterfly’ is બટરફ્લાય (baṭaraphlāya).

Yes, baṭaraphlāya certainly does look awfully similar to butterfly. Of course, that doesn’t trace all the way back to Proto-Indo-European and then all the way back up to English. It’s a loanword. Like if a butterfly got on an airplane. And all the other Indo-European languages of India (at least the ones I could look up ‘butterfly’ in) have words that look nothing like the English word, and for that matter often nothing like each other either.

You probably know that Sanskrit is to India and Hinduism what Latin is to western Europe and certain branches of Christianity, and you probably know that Sanskrit and Latin are related – in fact, it was Europeans in India noticing similarities between Sanskrit and European languages that led to the realization that they all traced back to a common ancestor, what we now call Proto-Indo-European (or PIE when we’re getting tired of typing). But if all the words for ‘butterfly’ in PIE languages of India descended from Sanskrit, you would expect them all to resemble चित्रपतङ्ग  (citrapataṅga) or पुष्पपतङ्ग (puṣpapataṅga) – which is pataṅga ‘flier, flying insect’ plus either citra ‘bright, conspicuous; speckled; strange, wonderful’ or puṣpa ‘flower’.

Needless to say, they do not.

It’s not that their words are all complete different from one another. The Hindi word for ‘butterfly’, तितली (titlī), and the Punjabi word, ਤਿਤਲੀ (titalī), are obviously versions of the same thing – whatever that thing may originally have been. I don’t have ready access to etymological dictionaries of either language, but I do note that the word in Nepali, another language of the family, is पुतली (putalī), which in Hindi means ‘puppet, doll’, which could conceivably have been altered with an endearing reduplication to the Hindi and Punjabi words. 

On the other hand, if we look to the west, to another more distantly related (and distant) PIE language, Armenian, we see թիթեռ (t’it’err), which is made by reduplication from PIE *pter- ‘wing’, and that same origin is no less plausible for the Hindi/Punjabi word, either by direct descent or by loan. But it is worth pointing out that the Sanskrit word for ‘wing’ is पक्ष (pakṣa), which is descended not from *pter- but from *peg- ‘side, flank’. And also that the Sanskrit pakṣa does have descendants in modern India meaning ‘butterfly’: Assamese পখিলা (pokhila) and Marathi फुलपाखरू (phulapākharū – literally ‘flower bird’).

For that matter, the modern Greek word for ‘butterfly’ has nothing to do with *pter- either. Lepidoptera, the Greek-derived Latin word for the whole genus – which, as I mentioned last time, is from λεπίς (lepís, ‘scale, flake’) and πτερόν (pterón, ‘wing’ – there’s that pter-) – was invented from classical roots in the 1700s. If you’d tried to use it in ancient Athens, it would have flown right by them. In modern Greece, you can call a butterfly πεταλούδα (petalouda), which came from an ancient word for ‘locust’ or perhaps from one meaning ‘spread open’. Or you can call it ψυχή (psykhé, the word that came to English as psyche), which in both modern and classical Greek literally means ‘soul, spirit’ and, poetically, ‘butterfly’ too.

If there is a soul, is there a psychopomp – a leader of the soul? There is, if you’re in Persia (Iran): the Persian word for ‘butterfly’ is پروانه (parvâne), from a Middle Persian root meaning ‘guide’ or ‘leader’. But where does the guide lead your soul? Perhaps to the creator – Bengali for ‘butterfly’ is প্রজাপতি (prajāpati), which is a Sanskrit name for a creator god, and literally means ‘lord of creatures’ (I’d rather meet a Bengali butterfly than a lion – let alone a Bengal tiger). But perhaps it leads it instead to one of the Hindu goddesses: Sīta, the wife of Rama. In Telugu, the word for ‘butterfly’ is సీతాకోకచిలుక (sītākōkaciluka), from సీత (Sīta) plus‎ కోక (kōka, ‘woman’s garment or cloth’) plus‎ చిలుక (ciluka, ‘parrot’). So, if I’m reading that right, it’s the Sīta’s robe parrot.

But Telugu is not an Indo-European language. It’s a Dravidian language, like a number of other languages in India. They’re historically unrelated to Indo-European – aside from the inevitable effects of being neighbours (such as “borrowings” like the name Sīta). So, for instance, the Tamil word may mean ‘colourful insect’ – not so different from the meaning of Sanskrit citrapataṅga – but the word is வண்ணத்துப்பூச்சி (vaṇṇattuppūcci) (and any resemblance of Tamil letter shapes to butterfly flight paths is pure coincidence). And the Malayalam word also means about the same as citrapataṅga, but it’s ചിത്രശലഭം (citraśalabhaṁ) – from… Sanskrit citra plus शलभ (śalabha) ‘cricket, locust’. Heh. Sanskrit flaps its wings and unrelated nearby languages feel the breeze, even while related languages show no effect. As for Kannada, the word is ಚಿಟ್ಟೆ (ciṭṭe), and I don’t know its etymology, but it does look suspiciously a bit like citra, doesn’t it.

There are, by the bye, other Indo-European languages of the same sweep across the west of Asia that I have words from but haven’t mentioned. This is because I don’t know their etymology. But I think it’s worth telling you that the word in Sinhala is සමනලයා  (samanalayā), and in Kurmanji Kurdish it’s pinpinîk – note once more the reduplication. And on the way from Greece to the east, we passed Georgia, where the language is not Indo-European – it’s Kartvelian, a completely unrelated family – but the word for ‘butterfly’ also has a curiously familiar look: it’s პეპელა (p’ep’ela), from a reduplication of the Proto-Kartvelian root *ṗer- ‘to fly’.

We also passed over Turkey, and I would not want to pass over Turkey, nor over the Turkic languages, which have a range of more than 6,500 kilometres – from Turkey all the way to Yakutia, in northeastern Siberia, although with gaps between clusters. The Turkish word for ‘butterfly’ is kelebek; it comes from Proto-Turkic *kepelek ‘butterfly’, with a flip of the middle consonants and a voicing of the “p” to “b”. The word has flown with little flaps and flutters into other Turkic languages too: in Azerbaijani, it’s kəpənək; east across the Caspian Sea in Turkmen, the word is kebelek; farther north and east, in Kazakh, the word is көбелек (köbelek); in Southern Altai, spoken in southern Siberia near Mongolia and China, the word is кӧбӧлӧк (köbölök); in Uyghur, the language of an ethnic group widely spread but mostly in Xinjiang, in northwestern China (as you may have heard), the word is كېپىنەك‎‎ (këpinek‎). 

That is, truly, a long trip on the silk route to find a word so little changed: it is a trip of 4,700 kilometres – and countless generations of speakers of the languages – from Istanbul to the largest city in Xinjiang, Ürümqi (the name of which means ‘beautiful pasture’, though it has desert at every edge of it – a whole painted lady butterfly migration course in itself). 

But when we get to the farthest reach of Turkic languages, the Sakha language of Yakutia has many loanwords from other languages of the area. So naturally you might expect a completely different word for ‘butterfly’. And, though you have to fly 3,400 kilometres from Ürümqi to Yakutsk to find one, you at last do: the Sakha word for ‘butterfly’ is үрүмэччи (ürümečči). Which, by such references as I can find for Sakha, seems to mean… yes, ‘beautiful pasture’: we’ve returned to Ürümqi.

Next: the Middle East and Africa – reduplications galore.

butterfly, part 5

Balto-Slavic and Finno-Ugric butterflies: moths, mothers, bulls, and birds

Once you go east of the Germanic and Romance languages (and farther east of the Celtic ones), the linguistic landscape changes: it’s dominated by Slavic languages, which have a strong family resemblance, sort of like butterflies and moths do.

Not everyone who speaks English thinks of moths and butterflies as such similar things – butterflies are crisp and metallic-pretty, and moths are fuzzy and mottled-dull and generally unpleasant, not to mention self-immolating on open flames. But the line is not so sharply drawn in some languages – and sometimes it’s drawn in other places than English draws it. Belarusian, Czech, Slovak, Polish, Slovenian, and Ukrainian all have words that seem vaguely similar to moth (and more so to mottle) – матылёк (matyliok), motýlmotýľmotylmetulj, and метелик (metelik) – that mean both ‘butterfly’ and ‘moth’.

More southern Slavs, however, beg to differ. First of all, they do not fold butterflies and moths together. Bulgarian пеперуда (peperuda) and Macedonian пеперутка (peperutka) have a peppy reduplication that may perhaps come from a Proto-Slavic *pero- root meaning ‘feather’ – but may rather related to Latin papilio; meanwhile, their ‘moth’ word is молец, molets. Serbs, Bosnians, and Croats, on the other hand, though having moljac and мољца (moljtsa) for ‘moth’, hew to Greek for ‘butterfly’: лептир and leptir, from the same roots as gave us the genus name Lepidoptera: λεπίς (lepís, ‘scale’) and‎ πτερόν (pterón, ‘wing’).

And Russians? The Russian language is very similar to Polish and moreso to Ukrainian, so you would expect a word like motyl and метелик. But the butterfly is not the only thing that is chaotically motile and rather fanciful, and Western Europeans do not have the patent on larks of exaltation. Yes, yes, there is a Russian word мотылёк (motylyok) for a small night moth, and моль (mol’) for the kind of moth that eats your sweaters and suits, but the word for ‘butterfly’ – and for the rest of the mothly crew – comes from the idea that the spirits of the dead live on as butterflies. Does it mean ‘ghost’? ‘ghoul’? ‘gremlin’? No. It means ‘granny’. The word is бабочка (babochka).

If that seems like babushka, it is. Russian has a word for ‘grandmother’ – бабка (babka) – and Russian has two diminutive suffixes, ушка (ushka) and очка (ochka). You can see them (modified as necessary) in other words, including ones that have made it into English: matryoshka, those famous Russian dolls, and devotchka, a term for a charming young woman. Of the two suffixes, the latter has the cuter implication. So whichever of gramma or granny seems cuter to you, бабочка is it. And that is a Russian butterfly.

If that sounds like bull, perhaps you are thinking of Latvian. True, unless you are of Latvian heritage or (like me) married to someone who is, you probably don’t think of Latvian much at all, but Latvian and Lithuanian are both Baltic languages, part of the Balto-Slavic family – more distant cousins of the Slavic languages. But on the other hand, if you like classical music and live in Canada, you may have heard the Latvian word for ‘butterfly’ without realizing it, because it’s the last name of a noted Latvian Canadian conductor: Ivars Taurins. The Latvian word, to be completely correct, is tauriņš. And if you were to think of one other word that that word looks like, what might it be? Taurus, perhaps? Guess why.

Yes, that’s right. It’s from the same root, which made it all the way to Proto-Balto-Slavic as *taurás, also meaning ‘bull’ or ‘aurochs’ or ‘bison’, and then the Latvians looked at this pretty little thing and apparently focused on its long curving antennae and called it a bull.

The Lithuanians, on the other hand, did not. No, they gave the little flitterer a fair shake. Specifically, their word, drugelis, is the diminutive of drugys, which also means ‘butterfly’ – or ‘moth’, or ‘malaria’ – and comes from a verb meaning ‘shake, shiver, quiver’, with relatives that show up in Slavic languages with meanings such as ‘tremble’ and ‘shudder’.

On the other side of Latvia from Lithuania is Estonia. Estonians do not speak a Balto-Slavic language. They do not speak an Indo-European language. Their language is no more closely related to Latvian than, say, Basque is – except for the inevitable cross-effects of being neighbours. Estonian, along with Finnish, Hungarian, and Sámi (the language of the people erstwhile known by others as Laplanders), is a Finno-Ugric language. Hungarian only very distantly resembles the others, and only to a learnèd eye, but Sámi has resemblances to Finnish, and Estonian and Finnish are quite obviously related (“Give me a beer” translates in Estonian as “Anna mulle õlut” and in Finnish as “Anna minulle olut,” for example). Which is why their words for ‘butterfly’ are…

…completely different, of course. The Estonian word is liblikas, whereas the Finnish word is perhonen (which in turn is a diminutive of perho, which meant the same thing but has been replaced by the cuter word). I am sorry to say I lack the etymological reference resources to tell you the source of either. But the Sámi word – well, the North Sámi word; there are several varieties of Sámi, as it stretches along the curve of the Scandinavian peninsula – I can tell you about: it’s beaiveloddi, and that means ‘day bird’.

Meanwhile, the Hungarians, in their somewhat warmer climate, blissfully discontinuous with the snow-sparkled peri-Arctic, use the word pillangó. Which means ‘twinkling’.

Next: taking wing from Greece to Bengal… and beyond.

butterfly, part 4

Celtic butterflies: spark of God or spark of coal?

If you had never seen or heard of a butterfly before, and one fluttered past you, and you determined to give it a name, would you name it to exalt the familiar – comparing it to butter or cream, say – or would you name it to familiarize the exalted – invoking beauty or someone or something divine?

“Why bring exaltation into it at all?” someone might ask, but (a) it’s a frickin’ butterfly, have you seen them? and (b) whoever asks that is not likely of a Celtic background. Celtic cultures – Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Manx, Cornish, Breton – have a well-earned reputation for existing at the intersection of heaven and earth, which is to say poetry and dirt.

Cornish is the once and future Celtic language of southwestern England, quite nearly rubbed out two centuries ago but more recently being revived. Its gifts to English include some place names and the personal name Jennifer, which George Bernard Shaw introduced to English audiences in his 1906 play The Doctor’s Dilemma: “My name is Jennifer.” “A strange name.” “Not in Cornwall. I am Cornish. It’s only what you call Guinevere.” And what is Cornish for ‘butterfly’? It’s tykki Duw, which is tykki ‘pretty thing’ and Duw ‘God’ – so God’s pretty thing, or divine pretty thing if you wish (even if you think that Jennifer is a prettier-sounding name than tykki Duw).

Up at in the north of Great Britain, in Scotland, they seem to see things similarly. Scots Gaelic has several words for ‘butterfly’ and I can’t say which is the most common in general use, but the readiest translation I get is dealan-dè, which means ‘spark of God’. Another one, only slightly less fanciful, is seillean-dè, ‘bee of God’.

And in between Cornwall and Scotland, aside from England, there is Wales. Welsh also has more than one word for ‘butterfly’. One is pilipala, which is pretty and fluttery and apparently (according to one source in Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru, anyway) a “childish” version of pilai, which in turn traces back to papilio – meaning that it lost its reduplication and then regained it. When the pressure of time turns the greenery of a word into so much coal, light it on fire.

Or just literally light coal on fire. Because that is the other common Welsh word for ‘butterfly’: glöyn byw, which means ‘live coal’, which is to say ‘burning coal’ – apparently butterflies in Wales are often orange and black. And so we come to the exaltation of the familiar, since Wales has a long history of coal mining. But wait, there’s a bit more: another Welsh term for ‘butterfly’ – not so much used now, it would seem – is glöyn Duw, and yes, that’s the same Duw as in Cornish: it means ‘God’s coal’ (of course God’s coal is burning; one need not specify that).

But what about across the water to the west, in Ireland? The standard Irish word is féileacán, which also shows up in Scots Gaelic as fèileagan and in Manx as follican. Now, if you get your etymology from Wiktionary (which is generally not a bad place to start), you will see that féileacán traces back to Old Irish etelachán, ‘little flying creature’, from etelach ‘flying’. But how does that etel become féile? Is it some kind of phonological metamorphosis, where it went into a cocoon with bare e and came out dressed in fancy f? Those who know some amount of Irish may suspect a changeling, a substitution perhaps made by leprechauns, because the word féile (which is pronounced about like the Brooklyn version of “failure”) means ‘holiday’ or ‘festival’ or ‘feast’ in the religious sense. So the gap may be not a failure of etymology but a féile of imagination, with a fancy bit of the holy.

But I suppose all butterfly flights are flights of fancy. The same is not always true of other flights, however. When the Anglo-Saxon invaders came in and took over Britain and pushed the Celtic peoples to the edges, one group – the one the island is named after – faced a choice of assimilating or fleeing across the channel. Those that did the latter set up in the part of northwest France now named after them: Brittany (speaking of popular names for girls). And they kept their language, now known as Breton. And what does Breton call a butterfly? Balafenn. And what does that mean? ‘Butterfly’ – I just told you. OK, but where does it come from? Brittany – do try to keep up!

OK, the truth is I don’t know where balafenn comes from, and I surveyed a number of sources and followed an assortment of hunches (including the possibility that the fenn is from penn, ‘head’, and some resemblance to balanenn, ‘broom’ – the implement and the flowering plant) and found nothing to tell me for sure. If you have information I didn’t find, please do tell me! We can notice that the bala seems similar to Welsh pilai and it might well be related to papilio, but if you notice a butterfly flying in the middle of a room with several windows open, how are you to know which window it flew in through? Or perhaps the butterfly was always there and someone built the room around it. Perhaps it was a dream.

And then there is Basque – it calls itself Euskara – a language of northern Spain and southern France at the bend of the Bay of Biscay. It’s unrelated to any other language in Europe. Speculation about where it came from and how it got there has run rampant but no one knows for sure – but it has been there for a very long time: they built the countries around it. We know it’s unrelated to Indo-European languages not just because of differences of vocabulary – and, after all, it has a number of words it got from neighbouring languages, as will always happen – but especially because its grammar has features that no Indo-European language has. For some time, the Spanish government – especially under Franco – tried to eradicate Basque, but it survived like a butterfly you can’t swat.

And what is the Basque word for ‘butterfly’? There’s more than one. There’s tximileta and pilipilinpauxa (the x is said somewhat like “sh”; tx is like “ch”), and pilipilin (no pauxa), and txilipitaiña… The only source for Basque etymology I could find online (I am not in a good position to look in a print reference just now) declares all of these to be “Expressive word.” Which is like accounting for all the different patterns of butterfly wings as “Pretty.” Well, they are expressive. Might as well bask in their prettiness and the charm of unknowing.

Next: Russian grandmothers and Latvian bulls.

butterfly, part 3

The cream of the Germanic summer: butterfly, Schmetterling, vlinder, sommerfugl, fjäril, fiðrildi

At this point, the less dedicated etymologist might start to falter, and perhaps close the folder. The more dedicated etymologist may pause to consider that the flight of a butterfly seems faltering, that a butterfly flaps its flat wings like a folder, and that the older, more staid German name for ‘butterfly’ is Falter, which also means ‘folder’.

But they didn’t name the butterfly after a folder… well, not entirely. Falter as in ‘folder’ comes from falten, which traces to an entirely different Proto-Germanic root than Falter as in ‘butterfly’. The pretty bug Falter traces back to… the exact same Indo-European reduplicated *pal- as Latin papilio. It came into Proto-Germanic as *fifaldǭ, which almost has the same soft sound as butterfly flaps, except really you can’t hear butterfly flaps, can you. That got fancifully altered into different versions such as Zweifalter, and was backformed to Falter, perhaps under the influence of the other Falter. But then Germans decided that they preferred the idea that this ostentatious insect had something to do with cream and called it Schmetterling instead, from Schmetten, an Austrian word for ‘cream’ (more commonly called Sahne or, especially in compounds, Rahm).

But that *fifaldǭ root didn’t just flap away. It fluttered into Old Norse, where they got the idea that it had something to do with feathers (fiðri) and “corrected” it to fiðrildi, which is also the modern Icelandic word. And fiðrildi, in turn, got left in someone’s pocket and went through the wash and came out as Swedish fjäril

And maybe, just maybe, fifaldǭ somehow became Dutch vlinder and the now-disused English flinder. If it did, we can’t say how it got that way. Really it’s too hard to follow and it didn’t leave enough traces. But while the Dutch accepted vlinder and kept it, the English decided instead that they would prefer to name the bug after butter.

I mean, OK, German cream, English butter, why the heck not. But why the heck? Why are overdressed insects associated with fatty dairy products? Some people speculate that it’s because one particular butterfly is yellow like butter. And OK, if that’s a dominant kind of butterfly in England (sort of like how eggplant got named eggplant because the people who named it that knew just the white kind), but is it? Others speculate that it’s because it came out in summer butter season, or because it was thought to steal butter, or something like that. What we do know is that there have been assorted similar names for it in Dutch and German meaning not just ‘butter fly’ but things like ‘butter witch’, ‘butter bird’, and ‘butter wife’ – plus the Dutch boterschijte, ‘butter shit’ (are Dutch butterflies especially vexatious? or are the Dutch particularly put out by fancy little flighty things?). But we don’t know how this all started; whoever could have recorded its origins clearly had butter things to do. So it might as well be random.

And then there’s Danish. And Norwegian – the modern kind. They could also have had a descendant of *fifaldǭ. But they don’t. Instead, they liked the version confected by someone back in the Hanseatic period (or thereabouts – starting about the 13th century): ‘summer bird’ – Middle Low German somervogel (compare Yiddish zumer-feygele, not the most common Yiddish word for ‘butterfly’ but it exists), which became Danish and Norwegian sommerfugl. And why the heck not. Summer is short but pretty in Scandinavia, just like the life of a butterfly.

Next: like Welsh coal.

butterfly, part 2

The butterfly of Romance: papilio, papillon, farfalla, mariposa, borboleta, fluture

The Romance languages – so called not because they’re romantic but because they come from Roman – have a surprising assortment of words for ‘butterfly’. 

Usually words for the same thing in the different Romance languages tend to resemble each other: for example, the words for ‘bread’ (Latin panis) are French pain, Italian pane, Spanish pan, Portuguese pão, and Romanian pâine(and there are similar words in Catalan, Provençal, and other related languages). Given that the Latin word for ‘butterfly’ is papilio, French papillon is unsurprising, but what about Italian farfalla, Spanish mariposa, Portuguese borboleta, and Romanian fluture?

Let’s start with why the Latin word is papilio. Every word comes from some previous version, all the way back into the mists of time and beyond; we can’t see into the mists of time, but we can sometimes guess what’s in them by the noises coming out of them and what emerges from them, sort of like a fight in a foggy forest. So scholars have done a lot of work reconstructing Proto-Indo-European, the language that is the great ancient ancestor of the Indo-European languages, a huge set that includes tongues such as Spanish, Gaelic, English, Swedish, Russian, and Hindi. And their best guess is that papilio comes from the root *pal- (the asterisk means it’s reconstructed from evidence, like museum dinosaurs), meaning ‘touch, tap, pat, feel, shake’, things like that. But the *pal- is reduplicated, as if they had decided to call a butterfly a papatty or tatappio. Why? I mean, I don’t know, but hey, look at butterflies!

So anyway, French didn’t change papilio much, just added the nasalizing n to the end as it did to assorted other words and gliding the l. But Italian, which usually keeps things recognizably close to the Latin, managed to come up with farfalla. Where the heck did that come from? It may have been something as simple (so to speak) as a Tuscan consonant shift that turns voiceless stops into fricatives: casa, ‘house’, is pronounced as “hasa” in Tuscan, for instance, and a similar thing could have happened to the p’s in papilio. But it’s not obvious what local perturbations would cause it to change this word in particular in standard Italian and not so many others. There’s also the question of where the r came from, though Provençal and Lombardy also got an r in their versions (parpalhosparpaja). It may instead be that it all happened under Arabic influence; there’s a Tunisian Arabic word for ‘butterfly’, farfaṭṭu, that shows up as farfett in Maltese. A borrowing or cross-influence isn’t too far-fettched… though we don’t know for sure.

At this point you may look at Portuguese borboleta and think, hmm, just change those f’s to b’s – and “b” is as easily gotten from “p” as “f” is, in historic sound changes – and adjust the vowels a bit and Bob’s your uncle. And that might be what happened. But then again, it might not. Instead of papatty, it could be bebeauty – that is, Latin bellus ‘beautiful’ might have become *belbeleta in Old Portuguese, which easily enough changes to borboleta over the years. But, again, we’re not sure…

And how about Spanish mariposa? Does that seem a bridge too far to flutter across from papilio? It is. The Spanish descendant of papilio is pabellón, but it doesn’t mean ‘butterfly’; it means ‘pavilion’ – which, surprise surprise, is also descended from papilio and originally referred to the butterfly shape of an ornate tent (I’m taking someone else’s word for this). But that is a digression for us here to all in tents. Instead of keeping pabellón for the lovely little insect, the Spanish looked at it and said, “Mary, alight” – “María, pósate,” which shortened to mariposa. And may a blessing from the mother of God land on you too!

Meanwhile, Romanian flutters by with fluture. It’s probably related to Albanian flutur (yeah, probably!), but which one of the two came first is a kind of butterfly–hurricane problem. English spell checkers think fluture should be future, which it’s not related to, but it looks rather like flutter, and it might be related to that – very far back, though, because flutter traces all the way through Germanic to Proto-Indo-European, rather than, as one might hope, more directly to Latin fluctuare, which is the source of fluctuate and possibly – but just possibly – the source of fluture. Or maybe it’s something else carried loosely on the currents of language.

Next: the cream of the Germanic summer.


Papillon. Farfalla. Mariposa. Schmetterling. Vlinder. Sommerfugl. Fjäril. Tauriņš. Babochka. Butterfly. It is, to use a technical term, freakin’ weird how flagrantly unrelated the words for ‘butterfly’ often are even among closely related languages. 

We can chalk that up to the butterfly effect.

You’ve heard of the butterfly effect? That staple of chaos theory, of the possible effect of small perturbations on large systems? The idea is that the flap of the wings of a butterfly in the Amazon could, through small differences in air currents being relayed and increasing in effect, result in a change in the course of a hurricane in the Caribbean. I think of it as like the effect of my elevator having to stop on an extra floor, resulting in my missing a subway train by a few seconds, resulting in my missing a connecting bus that runs every half hour. But of course at least as much of the time the elevator stop has zero effect: I get to the subway and wait a few minutes, I get to the bus and wait a few minutes. 

Needless to say, most butterfly wing flaps couldn’t and don’t make such a huge difference either… and, more importantly, the paths of hurricanes are subject to countlessly many influences. Our best predictions of hurricane paths are probabilistic. There are so many influences, we can’t trace them all or even be aware of them all. It might as well be random chance, like a roll of dice: if you had all the information about the muscle movements, the weight and shape of the dice, and the details of the surface they’re rolled onto, you’d predict it 100% of the time, but you don’t. “Random” is a word we use when we don’t have all the information or even know what all the information to have is.

And why not turn the butterfly effect around? Have you seen those things fly? There are obviously many air currents affecting them; they flutter by through the air on a wild chaotic path impossible to predict precisely. Maybe a hurricane in the Caribbean is responsible for two millimetres of displacement on the path of a butterfly in Brazil. How the heck do they fly, anyway? Didn’t someone once say that according to aerodynamics, butterflies can’t fly?

If that were true, of course, it would just mean that aerodynamics didn’t have enough information, since obviously butterflies do fly. But as it happens, butterfly flight has been studied intensely precisely because it’s not immediately obvious how it works. In 2021, researchers at Lund University in Sweden published results of a study showing how butterfly wings are aerodynamically effective: they clap together at the top tips first, and from the front rolling to the back, resulting in effective propulsion by pushing an air pocket backwards, and then the downstrokes keep them aloft. (The researchers didn’t say it, but I think it’s a given that butterflies are not prone to motion sickness.) So once again, the butterfly effect has to do more with seeing things as random or chaotic just because we lack information.

And we can apply that to the utter chaotic weirdness of the multiplicity of seemingly unrelated words for ‘butterfly’ in different languages. There are a few factors we can look at to help explain it. One, and an important one, is how pretty and charming butterflies are; this can motivate people to come up with fanciful names or at least to make modifications to existing names. Another is the broken-telephone effects of transmission of words from generation to generation, especially among the general public who have historically not been big on writing things down. Another is the effect of contact between different languages.

I’m going to look at a few language families to see how this plays out around the world. But instead of unleashing one enormous flurry of words on you, I’m serializing it. This has been part one. Part two will be the butterfly of Romance.

Pronunciation tip: pronunciation

Most of us, as kids, learned that it’s “pronunciation” and not “pronounciation.” But do you know why? And do you know why someone might think you’re saying one when you’re saying the other?