There I was, lying back in the dentist’s chair with my mouth open, trying to resist the urge to bite him. I distracted myself by reading the poster on the ceiling above me – Butterflies of the World.
Now, there are many words in European languages that differ only a little from one language to another. Book is le livre in French, libro in Italian, el libro in Spanish – derived no doubt from the Latin. Of course, the English word is ‘book’ , like the German ‘buch’, but we use the latin derivation in our word ‘library’.
Cat is gato in Spain, chat in France and katze in German. It’s γάτα (gata)in Greek, suggesting that the languages of Europe may have acquired their cat words from Greek, rather than the latin Felis (which nonetheless resembles our common cat name, Felix).
I can play this game for hours. Sad, I know, but true.
But this close resemblance between languages is not true of butterflies. Take a look at this list:
Butterfly (English); mariposa (Spanish); papillon (French); schmetterling (German). There’s no etymological relationship at all. So what is it about butterflies that transcends the shared relationships between the languages of western Europe.
How about further afield? Romanian? Fluture. Dutch? Vlinder. In Italy they are farfalla.
The Greeks called them πεταλούδα (petalouda), which brings up an evocative image of flying flower petals. The Romans, on the other hand, called them papilio. So the French, at least, can identify the forebear of their word. But what about the rest of us? Even the Italians, so proud of their descent from the Roman empire, have chosen their own word (I’ll never be able to cook up another meal of Farfalle in Arrabiata Sauce without thinking about flying flocks of pasta).
What is it about butterflies? This is not a rhetorical question – I really have no idea. Fun to think about, though, isn’t it?