Daily Archives: November 9, 2022


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.