butterfly, part 7

Middle Eastern and African butterflies: keep on flapping

As we flew eastward into Asia, we bypassed Africa and much of the Middle East, so we’re going to double back now. I wanted to treat all the language families of Africa together, and one of the language families – Afro-Asiatic – is also dominant in the Middle East – particularly two of its members: Arabic and Hebrew.

You may not think of Arabic and Hebrew as African languages, but it’s not just that Arabic is spoken (in several varieties) across northern Africa; it’s that all of the other languages of the Afro-Asiatic family are found in Africa: Afar, Amharic, Berber, Hausa, Oromo, Somali, Tigrinya, and more. The languages are not all closely related, but you’ve already seen how much diversity there can be in a language family (a.k.a. phylum, such as Indo-European). And, as you might expect, the words for ‘butterfly’ in the different Afro-Asiatic languages are diverse: Amharic ቢራቢሮ (bīrabīro); Berber aferṭeṭṭu; Hausa malan boɗe ido; Oromo billaacha; Somali balanbaalis; Tigrinya ጽንብላሊዕ (ṣəmbəlaliʿ); Afar laahinti (which means ‘cow’s eye’).

For that matter, Arabic itself is diverse; it has quite a few varieties, just as English has. But the standard Arabic word for ‘butterfly’ is فراشة (farāša). I don’t know its etymology, alas, but I do notice that the word in Hebrew – which is closely enough related to Arabic that you can often notice similarities between the two – is פַּרְפַּר or, without the vowel marks, פרפר (parpar), which has par where Arabic has far.

And what is that par? Well, after we’ve seen papilio, farfalla, pilipala, pilipilinpauxa, peperutka, perhonen, and parvâne, it seems just about par for the course – both its form and its reduplication. I am told by a regular reader of Sesquiotica, Israel (Izzy) Cohen, that in Hebrew you can use parpar as a verb – specifically, l’parper – to mean ‘be indecisive’, i.e., ‘flounder, flip-flop’. And he says that the butterfly is called parpar in Hebrew “because of its spasmodic flight-pattern.” So it is, I think, imitative – like some other words for ‘butterfly’ we have seen.

Imitative? Well, you see those flat wings flapping up and down, and you can picture in your head how they must sound when you can hear them (which you seldom can). And of course it’s not just one flap; it keeps on flapping – ergo the reduplication.

I keep mentioning reduplication (repetition of part or all of a word, either exactly the same or in modified form), and that’s because it keeps showing up. Worldwide, languages use reduplication in varying amounts for an assortment of reasons, as we sometimes do – not always so formally – in English. Some use it for pluralization (“Cheeseburger! cheeseburger! cheeseburger!”). Some use it for emphasis or clarification (“a drink drink”). Some use it for an endearing diminutive or to express fond familiarity (“Night-night, choo-choo”). Some use it to indicate repetition (“tap-tap-tap”; “pitter-patter”). 

This last kind is quite common in many African languages – specifically, it is used as a frequentative form, which means it means something keeps happening. For example, in Swahili, the reduplicating verb root -pepea means ‘wave back and forth’. And when you add the right noun class prefix and the right suffix to it, you get kipepeo, which means a thing that waves back and forth… specifically, a butterfly.

Which is fun because, though kipepeo seems like it would be related to parpar, Swahili doesn’t even belong to the same language family as Hebrew. But of course languages in the same area can influence each other: for example, the Arabic word for ‘book’ is كتاب (kitab, pronunciation varying between kinds of Arabic) and the Swahili word for ‘book’ is kitabu – note that same ki- noun class prefix as on kipepeo: the Arabic word was reanalyzed as root -tabu plus noun class prefix ki-.

What language family does Swahili belong to? There are ongoing terminological discussions, but the established name (and the one I learned when studying African languages in university) is Niger-Congo, because they all seem to trace from the area around the Niger and Congo rivers, at the angle of the African west coast. They have spread widely from there, throughout sub-Saharan Africa all the way to the east coast and the southern tip, and there are a lot of them. Not only do I not have the resources to look up ‘butterfly’ in all of them, I don’t even have the resources to name all of them (nor the space here either). But I do have more than a dozen I have at least been able to find in online resources – though I can’t always vouch for the reliability of the resources (mutters something about the uneven distribution of resources and attention between colonizers and colonized).

The first language I’ll name, Bambara, spoken in Mali, may not even be Niger-Congo; the Mandé languages of the northwest of Africa are quite different from the rest of the Niger-Congo languages. But I cannot not tell you that the Bambara word for ‘butterfly’, according to Google Translate, is nfirinfirinin, which seems to me like a whole tree full of butterflies all taking to wing at once. On the other hand, Glosbe.com gives me two words: dimago and npɛrɛnpɛrɛ. The first seems dull, but the second is glorious to behold. Fula, a not-too-closely related language spoken throughout west Africa, uses bedelallah, and I would love to know if there’s an Arabic influence, but I don’t. Wolof, related to Fula and spoken in Senegal, Gambia, and Mauretania, uses lëp-lëp, and I have a guess that it might be formed in about the same way as the Yoruba word.

Yoruba is definitely a Niger-Congo language, spoken in Togo, Benin, and Nigeria, and it uses a feature common in languages of the family (and many others around the world): ideophones. The Yoruba word for ‘butterfly’ is labalaba, from an ideophone indicating ‘light and floppy’. What’s an ideophone? A sort of demonstrative, expressive interjection; we use them some in English – “Bam, the lights come on, and whoosh, it’s like someone sucked all the air out of the room.” They’re like onomatopoeia but don’t necessarily imitate actual sounds. Think of the kinds of standardized interjections you often accompany with hand gestures. 

For instance, in Ewe, spoken in Ghana, Togo, and Benin, lilililili on a high tone means “nice good sweet smell” and on a low tone means “very bad smell.” I don’t know whether ideophones affected the Ewe word Google Translate gives me for ‘butterfly’, akpakpaluʋui, or either of the words Glosbe.com gives me, bakboloowhen and dyekpakpa. But I can see kpakpa in two of those words, and I can tell you that kpakpaxe means ‘duck’. (By the way, the syllables are kpa-kpa; you say the “kp” with the back of the tongue and the lips at the same time. These coarticulated stops are a common feature in Niger-Congo languages.)

I see something resemblant (though without the coarticulations) in lipekapeka, a word for ‘butterfly’ from Lingala, which is spoken in the region of the Congo river and nearby countries, but I don’t know whether it’s related. In Igbo, which is spoken in Nigeria, I find the word is urukurubụba. On the other hand, Twi, spoken in Ghana, has a soft and floppy word: afafrantɔ (by the way, that ɔ represents the vowel sound English speakers make in “court”).

As we follow the sweep of Niger-Congo languages across Africa to the east coast and then southward, we find the word in Kikuyu (spoken in Kenya) is kĩĩhuruta and the word in Luganda (spoken in Uganda) is ekiwojjolo. But in others we come back to the common theme of republication: in Kinyarwanda (spoken in Rwanda), it’s ikinyugunyugu; in Chichewa (also called Nyanja, spoken in Malawi, Mozambique, and Zambia), it’s gulugufe; in Shona (spoken in Zimbabwe), it’s shavishavi; in Sesotho (spoken in Lesotho), it’s serurubele.

The Niger-Congo languages – and their speakers – made it all the way to South Africa, arriving within about the last five hundred years; the two most spoken languages in South Africa, Zulu and Xhosa, are both Niger-Congo languages… but with quite a lot of influence from languages that were already spoken in the area when they arrived. (The third most spoken is Afrikaans, a creolized language based on Dutch; its word for ‘butterfly’ is skoenlapper, which means ‘shoe-patcher’.) Zulu and Xhosa so famous for their “click” sounds that it may surprise you to know they’re not actually part of the famously click-using Khoisan family of languages, spoken by mainly desert-dwelling people of the region from time immemorial. And it should surprise you; it’s unusual for a language to pick up a striking and difficult sound from an unrelated language. But this is a thing that can happen when speakers of different languages get together and meld families and customs; indeed, research suggests that the clicks started appearing in Zulu and Xhosa specifically as a way of getting around taboos against saying names of certain relatives and animals (especially ones you’re afraid of).

Naturally, as I’ve said so much about clicks in these languages, you can only be expecting that their words for ‘butterfly’… have no clicks in them at all. Sorry. The Xhosa word is ibhabhathane; the Zulu word is uvemvane (though there is also ijubajubane – which is apparently related to ijuba, ‘pigeon’ – and itwabitwabi). Well, heck, butterflies don’t click, do they? And no one’s afraid of them. But the words do reduplicate!

But what about the Khoisan languages, which have a much higher density of click sounds? Alas, they have a much lower density of lexical resources available. Not Khoekhoe, not !Kung, certainly not any of the ones with very few speakers, and for that matter not Sandawe – spoken farther north, in Tanzania – not one of them is well enough covered in online resources that I can find its word for ‘butterfly’, though I’m sure they all have one, because butterflies live where they live.

But I have not quite covered all of the language families of Africa. There is one more, the Nilo-Saharan, a family of languages of the central-northeast part of Africa, including Dinka and Maasai; more than a dozen of the languages have over a million speakers. To say they are not all closely related is an understatement, however; in fact, many scholars view Nilo-Saharan not as an actual family but simply as a catch-all for languages not part of the other three families. 

But they’re still in Africa, and at least some of them also use reduplication. The Kanuri word for ‘butterfly’ it’s fátáfátámà (why all the accents, by the way? Kanuri, like many languages in Africa, including most Niger-Congo languages is a tone language – in fact, the majority of the world’s tone languages are in Africa, but their use of tone is somewhat different than the use of tone in East Asian languages). In Maasai, it’s ɔsámpúrimpúri. In Lugbara, it’s alapapa. And in Dinka? In Dinka, at least when referring to a small butterfly, I’m told it’s dap.

Next: lepidoptera of East Asia.

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?


Happy chrysanthemum season! It’s the flower of the month for November. It’s also popular on Mother’s Day in May in Australia (mum’s the word!). It’s a flower of love and friendship, and also of death: in some places (notably New Orleans) it’s the featured flower of remembrance on All Saints’ Day. It’s the imperial flower of Japan – the throne of the emperor is the Chrysanthemum Throne, and the flower is featured on the imperial flag – and it’s also used as slang in Japanese and Chinese for ‘butthole’. In English, it has a long name but is often reduced to a very short one (mum!). It comes in dozens of species and countless cultivars. It is thus, we may say, a flower of considerable variety.

Well, in some ways, at least. Among Western languages, the words for it are just about universally chrysanthemum or something nearly identical (Finnish krysanteemit is about as far as it goes), all tracing back to Greek χρῡσάνθεμον, from khrusós χρυσός ‘gold’ and ánthos ἄνθος ‘flower’ (which not all chrysanthemums are, but the Greek name was first originally for the corn-marigold, Chrysanthemum segetum). The mum to which we commonly shorten it is really just a suffix – a bit of Latinized derivational morphology, nothing to do with the roots.

On the other hand, in China, where the chrysanthemum was first cultivated some 3500 years ago, the name for it is 菊花. That’s also the name for it in Japan, if you’re writing in kanji, and it’s also the name for it in Korea, if you’re writing in hanja. But of course it’s not pronounced the same in all three languages. We’ll get to that; I’ll start by telling you that in Mandarin, it’s júhuā (the j is said about like English “j”; the u is like German “ü”; hua is like “hwa”; and the tones are rising on the first and high level on the second).

菊花 is made of two characters, and the second one means ‘flower’; the first one means ‘chrysanthemum’. Why not just say  (菊)? Because there are assorted other words that are also pronounced , a notable one of which is 局, which means a lot of things, including ‘office’, ‘bureau’, ‘situation’, ‘arrangement’, ‘organization’, and ‘chessboard’. So for clarity the huā (花) is added to make it clear when speaking that this is the  that’s the flower. (By the way, no, ‘flower arrangement’ is not 花局, sorry; it’s 插花, chāhuā, which could be translated as ‘insert flowers’.)

And why the heck would they have words for ‘flower’ and ‘arrangement’ that sound the same? Well, they didn’t always… in Middle Chinese, the chrysanthemum was said /kɨuk̚/ and the arrangement was said /ɡɨok̚/. But – in Mandarin, though not in all kinds of Chinese – the final stop got dropped (as they all did in Mandarin), and the initial stops got palatalized and merged. But Japanese borrowed the words (both of them) along with their characters a long time ago, and in Japanese 菊 is kiku but 局 is kyoku (there are actually other pronunciations of both of them in different contexts; Japanese’s use of Chinese characters – kanji – is ideographic and not strictly phonetic; for example, 花 is most often pronounced hana but 菊花 is kiku ka).

OK, fine, but what about these characters, these little flowers of ink? The first thing to note is that both of them, 菊and 花, have the same top part, which is a piece that by itself signifies ‘grass’ – or, more broadly, any kind of field-growing plant. Beneath that, in 菊 you see something that kind of looks like a chrysanthemum face-on: 匊. When it’s like that without the grass on top, it’s pronounced , and it doesn’t mean ‘chrysanthemum’. Nope, it’s also two parts; the middle bit, 米, by itself is , and it means ‘grain’; it comes from a depiction of the separation of grains by threshing. The outside part, 勹, isn’t used by itself, but in combining it usually refers to wrapping or enclosing. Together those two, 匊, originally meant ‘handful’ (the amount of grain you could hold in your hand) but now translate as ‘receive with both hands’. 

Which is a lovely thing to do with a big bunch of chrysanthemums, but really the 匊 in 菊, however much it might look like a chrysanthemum head-on, is just there because it’s phonetically the same (though the tone has changed now), so the character is put together as ‘field plant that sounds like ju (handful)’. But that chrysanthemum-looking bit is there; they could have used a different character for the sound, after all – there are others…

OK, and 花? Is it put together as ‘field plant that sounds like hua’? Well… yeah. But again, that phonetic part, 化, is recognizable and has meaning too. It’s made of two parts, which – originally – are the same character, 人, one right side up and one upside down, and it just got modified a bit over time. What does that character mean? ‘Human’ or ‘person’ or ‘man’. Meaning that 化 is formed as two humans, one right side up, one upside down. Nice, eh? And what has that to do with flowers, aside from the sound (huà)? Its meaning is ‘change’. The two humans depicted were really one in two states, tumbling head over heels. Not because flowers will make someone fall head over heels for you – they might, but your results may vary – but flowers are a transformation of a plant of the field from mere grass to something lovelier.

So here. Have a handful of transformation. If you look at all the things this plant’s name has been, there’s no shortage of transformation – and if you look at the things it can signify (including love and death), there’s still more. And then there’s the matter of how many different ways chrysanthemums can look…


As I said in my last word tasting, smugness smothers like an overstuffed overpriced cushion, but priggishness pricks like a cactus. A prig is someone who is unassailably conceited on a point of correctness, self-righteous with the primness of certainty of moral as well as factual correctness. And it is not enough for a prig to be right; there must also be someone who is correspondingly wrong. Indeed, I think that prigs choose their opinions precisely on the basis of being able to flatly “correct” others on occasion. As George Eliot put it in Middlemarch, “A prig is a fellow who is always making you a present of his opinions.”

There is, I should say, no sure etymological connection between prig and prick (though a person who is called the former might well also be called the latter). There is also no known connection between prig and any other word such as sprig or brig or rig, because, to be plain, its origin is unknown. Its earlier senses included ‘thief’ and ‘dandy, fop’, and the latter shaded into the present usage, but before about the time of Shakespeare we have been unable to get a grip on prig, source-wise. Sound-wise, it may well gain from the “pr” we hear on prick and prim and proper and a few other words of similar tone, and perhaps from the stiffness or restriction of sprig, brig, and rig. But there’s no way to know that for sure. Not that priggishness requires any support – it is entirely self-assured – but linguistics sure does. Which is one reason linguistics is a natural enemy of priggishness.

I’ve wanted to write on prig for some time, but each time I’ve had the thought to do so, I’ve determined to wait for a bit so that I won’t seem to be focusing on some specific person I’ve had an interaction with online. The problem is just that by the time the smoke from one such interaction has wafted away, either I’ve forgotten about the topic or – at least as likely – another prig has come along. 

You see, when it comes to grammar and usage, well-informed, open-minded views draw prigs like a fruit basket draws flies. As soon as I use linguistic fact and understanding to contradict some reactionary mumpsimus (remember, “unalterable tradition” is what any given change-hater recalls learning in their childhood, even if it was new at the time and even if they have not accurately remembered it), I can count on someone showing up to flatly contradict me. They don’t present any counter-argument; they simply say I’m wrong, and that’s that, as though they had such authority that I ought to accept it and sit down and be quiet.*

I’m not the only language person to encounter this – not by a country mile. Others with higher profiles than I encounter it even more. My fellow editor and friend John McIntyre recently posted a column on letting go of long-held usage rules, and in it he quoted one person on Twitter who took exception to letting go of one particular “rule”: “actually, right is right and wrong is wrong, and as the ink-on-paper world dies it should do so with some fidelity to the language. also, ‘they’ and ‘their’ as references to an individual are always grammatically wrong. precision exists for a reason.” (This statement is wrong in every detail, incidentally, not just analytically in the present but in terms of historical fact too; I’ve written and presented on the topic in detail already.) As John said in a tweet about the column, “Apologies to anyone from whom I may be taking away things that make them a prig.”

But of course one of the things about prigs is that they refuse to have those things taken away. A prig is someone who clings to the last floating matchstick of a sunken ship and declares themself captain of it. Often that sunken ship is some idea of intrinsic superiority that is actually the ghost of class (well, “ghost” in the same was as a person may leave a “ghost” in an elevator after a lunch of beans and cabbage, and the next people into the elevator will not see a spectre of them but will certainly know something ghastly has passed). A most famous prig – indeed, the one person whose name comes up repeatedly if you search “prig” today – is Jacob Rees-Mogg, an English politician who has resolutely determined to mistake class signifiers for infallible marks of intelligence one hundred percent of the time. 

Another political figure I have seen called priggish is John Bolton, erstwhile US “diplomat” (technically yes, but astoundingly undiplomatic) and national security adviser, whose signature move is lecturing other people and being unable to conceive of any occasion in which he could possibly be even slightly in the wrong. Both Rees-Mogg and Bolton are blue-ribbon members of the “geez, you must be fun at parties” set, and this is an essential quality of prigs: above all, they do not, they may not, have fun. Fun is childish, and they are fully invested in being superior, which means absolutely not childish. You may on occasion see the phrase “joyless prig”; in truth, it’s pleonastic, but use it anyway if it pleases you. As one Reverend Alexander Carlyle wrote in his 1860 autobiography, among the clergy, “The prigs are truly not to be endured, for they are but half learned, are ignorant of the world, narrow-minded, pedantic, and overbearing.”

Which says, in its way and with more words, about what George Eliot said. The motion of the prig is upbraiding. Pigs might fly, but prigs will not – but they will sit on their dilapidated rooftops trying to shoot down anyone who does.

*Which, if you know me, is pretty funny. I have many weaknesses and undesirable traits, and I can certainly be provoked, but if you try to bully me on matters of understanding of language or general perspicacity it is not going to go as you appear to have envisioned it. I may have been bullied many ways as a kid, but, if I’m being honest, when it came to matters intellectual, I was the bully, so much so I didn’t even notice or admit it. And was I priggish? Yeah, probably, but mainly when I was wrong. Priggishness is rigid and rigidity is the best way to be wrong.