Butterfly Etymology

by Matthew Rabuzzi Cupertino, CA. U.S.A.

Here’s a little bagatelle (or, very imprecisely, a bugatelle!) of entomology etymology. I’ve long been fascinated by the large variety of distinct words for “butterfly” in various Indo-European languages. Here is my butterfly collection, which I hope will be of more than “e-vanessa-nt” interest.


“Butterfly” in English

Middle English buterflie, Old English buttorfleoge (written citation 1000 C.E.) 

The Oxford English Dictionary notes some old Dutch words “botervlieg” and “boterschijte,” and conjectures that butterflies’ excrement may have been thought to resemble butter, hence giving the name “butter-shit,” then “butter-fly”.

Webster’s Third New International Dictionary says perhaps the word comes from the notion that butterflies, or witches in that form, stole milk and butter (see German “Schmetterling” below).


“Butterfly” in other languages

psyche ancient Greek 

Also meant “soul” and “breath” (now “mind,” of course).

Note that the human Psyche was lovers with the god Eros (at least until she did the forbidden, gazed at his sleep form using an oil lamp she lit); compare the sexual butterfly images in Nabokov’s _Ada_.

There may also be a connection, based on shape, of butterflies with the Minoan labrys, or double axe of the Labyrinth.

petalouda modern Greek 

Related to the words for “petal,” “leaf,” and “spreading out“.

Note that the priestly garments described in Exodus 28:36 include the petalon or ziz, a plate of gold attached to the miter, which shines with God’s approval of a propitious sacrifice.

Possibly derived from “pteroda” by anaptyxis and lambdacism:

p tero da -> petaloudia

where “ptero” of course means wing, and has come home to roost once again in butterflies in the scientific name Lepidoptera.

papilio/onis Latin 

As in ancient Greek, the soul of a dead person is associated with the butterfly.

Our word “pavilion,” a tent or canopy spread out like wings, comes from this word as does “papilionaceous”.
Notice the Grimm’s Law of “p“->”f” in many of the words below, and the Hungarian aphaeresis.

papillon French
fifoldara Anglo-Saxon
fifalde Old English
fifaltra Old High German
fifrildi Old Norse, modern Icelandic
farfalla Italian
The pasta, farfalle, often called “bow-ties” in the US, are really butterflies.
feileacan Irish
feileacan oiche” is “night butterfly” i.e. “moth“.
mariposa Spanish
From “la Santa Maria posa” = “the Virgin Mary alights/rests“?
(Recalling Psyche as butterfly?) 

Compare the ladybug or ladybird, “Our Lady’s bird“:

SwedishMarias Nyckelpiga” = “Mary’s maidservant’s key
GermanMarienkafer” = “Mary’s chafer/beetle
GermanHimmelskuchlichen
FrenchBete a bon Dieu
SpanishVaquilla de Dios
RussianBozhia korovka” = “God’s little cow
SanskritIndragopa
(cf. Iona & Peter Opie, Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes_, s.v. “Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home“). 

borboleta Portuguese
mariposa” includes both butterflies and moths.
Schmetterling German 

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 b’flies were really witches out to steal the cream.

(As an aside, “schmettern,” among other things, means “to ring out, to warble, to twitter” — an aural analogue of how butterflies look in flight? Latin “pipilo/are” means “to twitter, to chirp,” after all. But the German, to my ears, sounds more like the sound a butterfly makes as a Prussian sort accelerates down the autobahn mashing it into a smear on the windshield.)

Tagfalter” is another name for butterfly, perhaps meaning “day-hinge” or “day-folder,” and “Nachtfalter” is a moth. These make semantic sense, or the “falter” part may instead reflect the Old High German “fifaltra” derived from the Latin.

 

sommerfugl Norwegian
summerfly” (or is it “summerbird,” as a German “Vogel”” = “bird“?)
zomerfeygele Yiddish
summerbird
babochka Russian
Pronounced “bah’ bch ka“, it also means “bow tie“. 

It’s a diminutive of “baba” or “babka” (= “woman, grandmother, cake“, whence also “babushka” = “grandmother” in English, “babushka” = “a grandma-style headkerchief“).

dushichka Russian (regional dialects) 

Derived from “dusha” = “soul“.

pillango’/lepke Hungarian
hu-tieh Mandarin 

As the word for 70 (years) is “tieh”, the butterfly thus becomes a punning symbol of longevity. It also represents young men in love (whereas in Japan it is young maidenhood or marital hapiness).

I do not know whether I was a man dreaming I was a butterfly,
or whether I am now a butterfly dreaming I was a man.

–Chuang Tse


“Moth”

moth English
English, cited in 950, from Scandinavian “mott” = “maggot
polilla Spanish
tra├ža Portuguese 

Portuguese, “moth” or “silverfish

Motte German
moell Norwegian
moelur/moelfluga Icelandic

“Caterpillar”

caterpillar English 

catyrpel” of 1440, derived from French “chatepelose” (?), meaning “hairy cat” (cf. “pile,” “pilose,” from Latin “pilus” = “hair“; “pill,” as in either medicine lozenge or fuzzball, like the hairballs cats regurgitate up, from Latin “pila” = “ball, originally knot of hair“). See also pussy willows and catkins, similar shapes and fuzzinesses associated with the feline.

Or is it from “piller,” meaning “pillager/ravager,” and “cate,” meaning “food” (root of today’s “caterer“) , as caterpillars devour leaves?

 

I will restore to you the years that the locust hath eaten, the cankerworm, and the caterpillar, and the palmerworm, my great army which I send among you.

– Joel 2:25

chenille French 

From Latin “canicula,” diminutive of “canis” = “dog” .
Thus English caterpillar is a hairy cat, and the French is a hairy dog. Meanwhile, the word “chenille” in English means a kind of thick fuzzy yarn that looks like a caterpillar!

 

eruca/ae Latin
Pliny uses this word to mean “caterpillar“, Horace to mean the garden cabbage “colewort” . This word in English also means “caterpillar,” as well as the garden herb “rocket“.
bruco Italian 

(caterpillar, grub, maggot)

oruga Spanish
lagarta/larva Portuguese 

(“lagarto” = “lizard“)

larve/kaalorm Norwegian 

(and “puppe” = “pupa“)

fifrildislirfa Icelandic 

(and “pupuskeid” and “lirfa” = “pupa“)


Related words in English

pupa From Latin for girl or doll, from PIE root meaning “to swell up, inflate,” whence Russian “pulja” = “ball“. “Pupil” = “student” comes from Latin “pupus” = “boy“; “pupil” = “center of eye” comes from the little “doll” you see reflected there.
cocoon From Frenchcoque” = “shell, of mollusc/egg/nut/…“.
chrysalis From Greek for “chrysos” = “gold” (golden sheath), of Semitic origin (cf. Hebrew “haruz” = “gold,” Arabic “hara” = “yellow“).
fritillary From Latinfritillus” = “dice box,” from the spotted markings on the wings, this butterfly flits aleatorily (“aleatory” = “dice,” now = “random“).
Lepidoptera Scientific name for the butterflies and the moths, meaning “scale-winged (insect)“. “Ptera” was discussed above; “lepidote” = “scurfy, scaly” (whence “leprosy“) comes from Greek “lepein” = “to peel“. Unrelated, but charming, is the archaic Latinate “lepid” = “pleasant, neat, charming“.

According to Mircea Eliade’s Encyclopedia of Religion, “In Madagascar and among the Naga of Manipur, some trace their ancestry from a butterfly. According to the Pima of North America, at the time of beginning the creator, Chiowotmahki, assumed the form of a butterfly and flew over the world until he found a suitable place for mankind. The Maori of New Zealand believe that the soul returns to earth after death as a butterfly, and in the Solomon Islands a dying person, who has a choice as to what he will become after death, often chooses to become a butterfly. In Islamic Sufism, the moth that immolates itself in the candle flame is the soul losing itself in the divine fire.”

Harking back to the ancient Greek Psyche as butterfly, there is an interesting coincidence in Aztec and Mayan mythology. Itzpapalotl is the goddess of the Obsidian Butterfly, which is to say, of the soul embedded in stone. The seemingly antinomian idea is that the free butterfly/soul is released from the body by the sacrificial blade of obsidian, and simultaneously captured or contained in it. Itzpapalotl is a counterpart of the god Tezcatlipoca of the Smoking Mirror; “tezcat” means “obsidian knife“. The butterfly is also an attribute of Xochipilli, the god of flowers and vegetation, and is also associated with flickering firelight. (I suppose these names are Nahuatl.)

What’s next for these flying souls? Metamorphosis? Transfiguration? Perhaps the *beat*ification of butterfly wings?
(And as for “Lepid*opera*“, let’s not forget Puccini’s Madama Butterfly…)

I would like to thank Daniel A Rabuzzi and Doug Olcott, and Irina Neyman for help in researching this article, and Carroll Bishop, Michael Matola, and Anno Siegel for additional ideas.


Matthew Rabuzzi rabuzzi@patch.tandem.com

Matthew Rabuzzi has been a word lover and amateur etymologist ever since his first spelling bee in grade school. When not immersed in the dictionary, he writes database software at Tandem Computers, Cupertino California.