Linguists have long been puzzled by the fact that the words used for ‘butterfly’ in most languages do not resemble one another, even within the same linguistic family. For instance, in Romance we find farfalla, papillon, mariposa and borboleta; Germanic languages display butterfly, Schmetterling, vlinder and sommerfugl. In Slavic languages, babochka, peperuda, motyl and leptir are no more similar. No other familiar creature has so many utterly different names. These words are as diverse, mysterious and charming as butterflies themselves, but, however they sound, they are always evocative, bringing to mind a plethora of images. They all appear to be unique, language-specific coinages, defying the general principle which postulates that words should be mutually recognizable in a linguistic family because they are all derived from one common root; borrowings between unrelated neighbouring languages are also surprisingly scarce. Why do butterflies generate such diversity? Do they have a particular impact on our basic cognitive creative processes or can it all be explained by historical linguistics in terms of inheritance? This paper, limited to European languages for space reasons, aims to answer such questions, analysing word differences from a historical point of view – entomology through the looking-glass of etymology. Find out how butterfly names relate to one another, but also the stories behind each word, explanations ranging from occult beliefs to religion, from the prosaic to the crude.

Let us begin from the English butterfly, the origin of which continues to be subject to intense debate, generating a wide range of explanations, from the simplest to the bizarre. What is fairly undisputable is that it comes from Old English butorfl?oge or buterf?oge, generally argued to have arisen from the old notion that these insects consume butter or milk which is left uncovered – people believed that witches took the shape of butterflies when they stole butter or milk. Alternatively, the association could originate in the fact that butterflies and butter churning are simultaneous heralds of spring. A less creative theory links the source of the English word to the pale yellow colour that the wings of many butterfly species exhibit, recalling the colour of butter; the name may have originally applied to such insects only. In fact, one of Britain’s most well-known butterflies and often the first species to be seen in spring, the Brimstone, could be described as a butter-coloured fly. Another theory, based on the Middle Dutch cognate boterschijte, evokes the idea that these insects excrete a butter-like substance, which gave them their current name, but most butterflies only pass excess water. It was also speculated that the Old English term was not a compound of butere (‘butter’), but of butor (‘beater’) describing the flight of the fl?oge (‘fly’). Finally, it was suggested that butterfly is a spoonerism of flutter-by.  As charming as this hypothesis sounds, it is blatantly contradicted by the fact that Old English and other Germanic languages had/have similar words. However, one thing is certain about the etymology of English butterfly: it flutters by.

Even though Schmetterling and butterfly do not resemble each other in form, German and English appear to follow the same morphological pattern, demonstrating that cultural background directly influences communication systems.  Schmetterling is made up of –ling, a diminutive suffix, and a form of the East Middle German word Schmetten, better known as Schmant nowadays, designating the (sour) cream some butterfly species are attracted to. Schmetten is argued to be a loan word from Slavic languages, where smetana means ‘cream’. As in the case of English, assuming that butterfly is indeed related to the insect’s tendency to hover around butter churns, etymology is based on behavior, and leads to the story of greedy witches who steal dairy in the form of butterflies: scenic archaic terms like Milchdieb (literally ‘milk thief’) and Molkenstehler (‘whey stealer’) illustrate the superstition. Westphalian Schmandlecker (‘sour cream licker’) and Low German Botterlicker (‘butter licker’) go along the same line, while another regional word, Buttervogel (‘butter bird’) recalls English. Meanwhile, Falter, another German word for ‘butterfly’, has been argued not come from falten (‘to fold’), but from flattern (‘to flutter’), rendering the fast motion of butterflies’ wings. A possible source is Old High German fifaltra, which appears to derive from Latin papilio, under Grimm’s Law.

Other Germanic languages offer butterflies a poetic description: Norwegian and Danish sommerfugl literally means ‘summer bird’. Its cognate summarfuglur exists in Faroese, but it only designates one butterfly species – the Faroese class name is firvaldur, which in its turn seems to be related to Norwegian Nynorsk fivrel. Neighbouring Swedes maintain the bird reference: the etymology of Swedish fjäril (having several dialect forms such as fjärålder, fjäralle or färil) is ‘feather flapper’. Similarly, Icelandic fiðrirldi echoes fiður (‘feathers’). Moving south, although Middle Dutch used botervliege, a cognate of butterfly, the standard present-day Dutch term is vlinder, argued to originate in reconstructed *fî-faldrôn (‘folding, flying’), which may also have engendered German Falter and Faroese firvaldur. There are many dialect words for ‘butterfly’ in Dutch, some of which contain boter (‘butter’). As an aside, the semantic difference between Norwegian sommerfugl and Faroese summarfuglur can be explained by subjective selection. Animal names tend to be very local, so when languages were standardized only one word from one dialect was generally chosen, sending many other dialect words into oblivion (Sardinian, for example, has about thirty words for ‘butterfly’, yet for the standard term it borrowed farfalla from Italian). For taxonomy purposes, biologists imposed certain names that people may not have normally used, from a wide range of regional terms, but they had even more species to name.

In Russian, babochka is a diminutive of baba (‘old woman’) and preserves in its form the heathen belief of Slavs according to which women, especially witches, turn into butterflies after death. In the same vein, in regional dialects of Russian, the butterfly is called dushichka, which derives from dusha (‘soul’). Alternatively, butterflies were regarded as witches or werewolves in disguise, as in the English and German legends. In fact, any analysis of animal names should take into consideration the fact that the unknown inspires fear or awe, so “odd” creatures were given odd names, often involving occultism, superstition or religion. It was speculated that its high emotional charge made babochka resist borrowing, distinguishing Russian from the other Slavic languages. Which, as a matter of fact, stick together: Czech and Slovak motýl, Polish motyl, Slovenian metúlj and Ukrainian metelyk all appear to come from one word. For some authors, this is miot: it once meant ‘excrements’ (remember boterschijte?), which is where butterflies supposedly hatch. Most researchers, however, put forth Protoslavic *motyl’? (‘butterfly’), probably derived from *mesti (‘to sweep, to brush’), which makes the butterfly ‘the one with the sweeping flight’. In contrast, Serbo-Croatian goes back to the basics: leptir has the same source as Lepidoptera, the insect order which includes butterflies and moths, i.e. ancient Greek lepis (‘scale’) and pterón (‘wing’), referring to the minute scales that cover butterflies’ wings, but also their head and parts of the thorax and abdomen. Cognate lepen, found in dialectal Russian, also means ‘butterfly’.

Incidentally, Greeks use petaloudia, which is related to the words for ‘petal’, ‘leaf’ and ‘spreading out’, and may originate in pteroda, from the same pterón (‘wing’). In ancient Greek, the butterfly was psyche, which also meant ‘breath’ and ‘soul’, as the souls of the dead were associated with butterflies, symbols of transcendent immortal life after death. According to the legend, Psyche was a young woman who lost the love of the god Eros when she broke his rule by looking at him, only to regain it after a series of tormenting trials, which resulted in her immortality. But the belief that butterflies are flying souls, containing the life force of the departed, which is also reflected in dialectal Russian dushichka, is widespread: according to Mircea Eliade, “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.”  For Mayans, butterflies were the souls of women who died in childbirth and men who fell in battle, while the Irish believed that a white butterfly carried the souls of departed children. Darwin also regarded this insect as an emblem of the soul, since it starts out as an earthbound caterpillar, “dies” into the pupal stage, and is resurrected as a beautiful winged creature. Elsewhere in the world, the butterfly has a sacred symbolism: in Madagascar and among the Naga of Manipur, people trace their ancestry from a butterfly, while the Pima of  North America believe that the creator Chiowotmahki assumed the form of a butterfly and flew over the world until he found a suitable place for mankind. In other indigenous American cultures, the butterfly was the bringer of dreams and messenger of the Great Spirit.

Among the Romance, French and Catalan are the only mainstream languages which stay unmistakably true to their roots: both papillon and papallona come from Latin papilio, which was the name Romans used for butterflies. Papilio is probably a reduplicated form of Proto-Indo-European *pal (‘to feel, to touch, to shake’), which links it to palpitare (‘to palpitate, to flutter’), while other authors propose a reduplication of *pl- root (‘to fly, flutter’)[1]. Portuguese borboletawhose origins are less certain, has also been traced back to Latin, more specifically to Vulgar Latin *belbellita (‘little beautiful one’, a reduplication from bellus – ‘beautiful’). Other authors relate it to papilio, although the phonetic resemblance is as elusive as the creature itself. It could have followed the pattern of Italian though. Next time you eat the bow-tie-shaped pasta you call farfalle in the U.S., you will know this word is actually the plural of Italian farfalla, which means ‘butterfly’. It also has uncertain origins, onomatopoeic or phonosymbolic for some linguists. Others connect it to Latin papilionem (accusative of papilio), altered to parpaglione, which, because it sounded like an augmentative, gave rise to an alleged positive, parpaglia; this form eventually became farfalla in Italianby aspiration. For some authors who disregard the Latin root, the ‘butterfly’ words in Portuguese and Italian seem to be sound symbolic: each is allegedly the result of a transfer from the visual/motor to the articular, reflecting in sound the structure of our visual perception of the butterfly’s flight pattern. Nevertheless, sources do matter: sound symbolism may explain the original Latin word rather than each term in the daughter languages[2]. Toward the east, Romanian fluture, related to German Falter and Italian fiútola (a dark species of butterfly), and argued to be the source of Albanian flutur, has been traced back to an unattested Vulgar Latin *flutulus. It cannot be ascertained whether fluture originates in the verb a flutura (‘to flutter’) or the other way around. Although possible etymons include Latin *fluctul?re (‘to fluctuate’) and flut?re (’to float’), a flutura is more likely an expressive creation, an imitation of the faltering flight of butterflies. Interestingly, there is a papion in Romanian, whose origins are indisputably French, but it means ‘bow tie’.

If butterflies embody witches in Germanic and Slavic languages, and dead people for ancient Greeks, Spanish mariposa invokes the Virgin Mary. Made up of a short form of Maria and the second person imperative of the verb posar (‘to lay down, to alight’), it is said to originate in old songs and nursery rhymes which invited butterflies to rest, in verses such as: “María pósate, descansa en el suelo” (‘Mary, alight, rest on the ground’)[3]. Sardinian mariavolavola, on the other hand, seems to invite Mary to fly away. Another divine reference comes from the Scottish Gaelic term for ‘butterfly’, dealan dé, which apparently means ‘God’s fire’. In other languages, including English, it is the ladybug or ladybird (‘Our Lady’s bird’) which is usually associated with divinity: German Marienkäfer (‘Mary’s beetle’), Swedish Jungfru Marias nyckelpiga (‘Our Lady’s servant in charge of the keys’), French bête à bon Dieu (‘the good Lord’s creature’), and Russian bozhia korovka (‘God’s little cow’) are a few examples.

It was suggested that butterflies are distinguished as “unique aesthetic creations of language”, as opposed to, e.g., cats and dogs, because their singularly inspirational poetic nature demands special linguistic treatment. In other words, “the concept/image of butterfly is a uniquely powerful one in the group minds of the world’s cultures, with its somewhat unpromising start as a caterpillar followed by its dazzling finish of visual symmetry, coupled with the motional unforgettability of the butterfly’s flipzagging path through our consciousnesses; butterflies are such perfect symbols of transformation that almost no culture is content to accept another’s poetry for this mythic creature”. This is why “each language finds its own verbal beauty to celebrate the stunning salience of the butterfly’s being”. As romantic as this explanation sounds, it does seem far-fetched: there are many other prominent poetic images the generic terms of which are perfectly recognizable, even in unrelated languages. The butterfly’s unicity in our linguistic cognition thus remains as “mysterious as the creature itself”.

Nevertheless, one conclusion that may be drawn from the butterfly collection above is that ‘butterfly’ words in European languages are more related then they seem to be. Even though they do not sound alike, there are other features they share: some, like Italian farfalla or Icelandic fiðrirldi, involve repetitious sound symbolism, echoing the motion and gentle rustle of butterfly wings, while others, such as German Schmetterling and Russian babochka, are coined from culture-specific myths, by means of metaphorical processes. As for origins, it has been argued that they should not be searched for in ancient common roots, but rather in the characteristics of butterflies themselves: color, the beating of their wings, the tumbling flight, behavioral propensities, etc.  And if we do look for those roots, French papillon, Bulgarian peperuda, Greek petalouda, Icelandic fiðrirldi, Swedish fjäril, Irish féileacán, Italian farfalla, Portuguese borboleta and Dutch vlinder could reasonably be demonstrated to have common origins, by means of phonological processes[1]. Like butterflies, all of the above nouns are colourful, elusive and, on the whole, special, appearing here and there in space and time and apparently observing no logic. Perhaps they do not resemble because they share with butterflies an incredible power of transformation: the distinct phases in the life of a word can be compared to the stages in the life cycle of the butterfly, which are so visibly different and the evolution of which also seems unnatural.


  1. Papilio also meant ‘tent’, which led to our present-day pavilion.
  2. Hungarian pillangó also seems to be onomatopoeia in essence, although it sounds like the –ing form of a nonexistent verb pillangani. Some sources relate it to the movement of butterflies’ wings, whereas others assign it a ‘glittering’ meaning, but it may also be the result of apheresis, i.e. omission of the first syllable in Latin papilio.
  3. An online poll reveals that mariposa is internet users’ favourite ‘butterfly’ word (27%), followed by papillon and farfalla; Lithuanian drugelis is the least favourite so far.
  4. Some of the languages that do not have cognates of these words once did (see Old Norse, Middle High German).

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