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
English, cited in 950, from Scandinavian “mott” = “maggot“
|traça||PortuguesePortuguese, “moth” or “silverfish“|
|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?
|chenille||FrenchFrom 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!
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)|
|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 French “coque” = “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 Latin “fritillus” = “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.