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 (parpalhos, parpaja). 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.