17 December 2009

Butterflies flutter by.

So I told Ms. Chris about my blag and she had one pressing etymological question: Where does "butterfly" come from? I had never thought about it, but she had been wondering for years, apparently.

And then I realized, the word for butterfly is vastly different in every language I could think of off the top of my head.

The most likely origin of the English word seems to be

based on the old notion that the insects (or witches disguised as butterflies) consume butter or milk that is left uncovered
although some people also think it is based on the color and consistency of butterfly excrement. This explanation is highly unlikely. Now, I don't know about you, but I had never really looked at butterfly excrement before.

What about in other languages?

Off the top of my head:

Spanish - Mariposa - from "la Santa Maria posa" = "the Virgin Mary alights/rests" ?

French - Papillon - this actually comes from the Latin papilio meaning butterfly. Our English word pavilion comes from the same root... a canopy spread out like wings.

German - Schmetterling - from "Schmetten", an Upper Saxon dialect loan-word first used 16 & 17th C, from Czech "smetana", both meaning "cream", referring to butterflies' proclivity to hover around milkpails, butterchurns, etc. Folk belief had it that the butterflies were really witches out to steal the cream.
Tagfalter is another name for butterfly, perhaps meaning "day-hinge" or "day-folder", and Nachtfalter is a moth.

Italian - Farfalla - This also comes from the Latin. (Eventually I'm going to do a post about how p's became f's and f's became h's. ...later.) This is also the English word for those bow-tie pasta things that look like butterflies.

Notably, a few others:

Norwegian and Yiddish both call it a "summerbird," sommerfugl and zomerfeygele respectively.

Babochka in Russian. This means "butterfly" or "bow tie." Go with me here. Baba or Babka means woman or grandmother. Babushka can mean grandmother or grandmother-like-thing, like a grandmother-like-handkercheif, like one that can be tied to the shape of a butterfly, babochka.

1 comment:

gumbosolo said...

I've also read that "butterfly" is a natural inversion of an earlier "flutterby" and that the butter-stealing explanation is a folk etymology.