Summer chicks and glowing coals


Last night we were talking about the Pili Palas on Anglesey, a butterfly centre, which also has birds, snakes and other exotic creatures. The name is a pun combining pili-pala (butterfly) and palas (palace) – it took me ages to realise this. We were trying to think of the words for butterfly in various other languages and came up with the French, papillon, and the Spanish mariposa, but got stuck after that. This got me wondering why these words are so different in different languages.

The English word butterfly comes from the Old English buttorfleoge, perhaps from bēatan (to beat) and flēoge (fly), or perhaps it was the name just for yellow butterflies, and/or because butterflies were thought to eat butter and milk.

In Middle High German butterflies were known as molkendiep (“milk-thief”) and in Low German a butterfly is a Botterlicker (“butter-licker”) [source]. In Modern German Schmetterling /ˈʃmɛtɐlɪŋ/ is the word for butterfly – from Schmetten (cream) – from the Czech smetana (cream). This is based on the folk belief that witches transformed themselves into butterflies to steal cream and milk [source].

Welsh words for butterfly include iâr fach yr haf (“summer chick”), glöyn byw (“living coal”), pila-pala and bili-balo.

Like iâr fach yr haf in Welsh, butterflies are known as “summer birds” in Norwegian, sommerfugl, and in Yiddish, zomerfeygele.

In Irish the word for butterfly is féileacán, possible from the Old Irish etelachán (little flying creature / butterfly), from etelach (flying) [source]. The Manx butterfly, foillycan, comes from the same root, but in Scottish Gaelic butterflies are seilleann-dé (“God’s bee”) and dealan-dè (“God’s lightening”).

The French word for butterfly, papillon, comes from the Latin pāpiliō (butterfly, moth) – of unknown origin, and also the root of the English word pavilion (via Old French) [source]. The Italian farfalla (butterfly) comes from the same source.

The Spanish word for butterfly, mariposa, apparently comes from the expression Mari, posa(te (Mary, alight!), which features in children’s songs and games, or from la Santa Maria posa (the Virgin Mary alights/rests). Other theories about the etymology of this word.

There is more discussion of words for butterfly in various languages on AllExperts, and there are words for butterfly in many more languages here.

This entry was posted in English, Etymology, French, German, Irish, Italian, Language, Latin, Manx, Scottish Gaelic, Spanish, Welsh, Words and phrases.

6 Responses to Summer chicks and glowing coals

  1. Yenlit says:

    I followed the link to the long list of butterfly translations (they missed out Breton balafenn) and was unaware that butterfly as a verb existed? I could imagine butterflying as a verb to identify the pastime of collecting butterflies etc. but the cookery term of preparing meat I’d never heard of before? Wouldn’t ‘butterflied’ chicken be ‘spatch-cock’ chicken anyway?

  2. Arakun says:

    The Swedish word is “fjäril” which I understand goes back to the same Indo-European root as the Latin “pāpilio”: “pol/pal” meaning ‘flutter’ or ‘beat’.

  3. prase says:

    Czech motýl (similar forms also in other Slavic languages) probably comes from motat se = to totter, because of their shaky flying style.

  4. Trond Engen says:

    As it happens, a month or so I went into the Palas Print book shop in Caernarfon to find a Welsh dictionary. When I waited in line to pay, the customers before me asked the lady about the Welsh word for butterfly, and I was intrigued when I thought she said pilopalo — because it sounded like a relative of papilio et al and I didn’t think Welsh would have inherited initial p. Unfortunately, they had no such thing as a Welsh etymological dictionary, but we spent some time discussing the word — her trying to come up with inherited words with p- and me suggesting a Roman era Latin loan. But my family came in and wanted to move on before we concluded. Yenlit’s Breton balafenn is another data point, but I don’t know how to work it in. But I’m sure there are someone here who does.

    Norwegian sommerfugl is likely to be a recent loan/calque. The inherited word is the rare fivril, close to the standard Swedish word fjäril. As Arakun says, it’s also believed to be a cognate of pāpilio et al, but the derivation is rather complex and I can’t remember where to find it.

  5. Mark says:

    Latin papilio ‘butterfly’ was also used as the name of a specific kind of tent with large-flapped opening used by the Roman army; this (or rather, an oblique case like papilionem) is the ultimate source of the French pavillon, which gave English pavilion. Various complex dialect/language variations in sound changes account for the difference between Mod. Fr. pavillon and Fr. papillon.

    The same Latin word was borrowed into Brittonic > Welsh as pebyll ‘tent, pavilion’, plural pebyll(i)on. This was later felt to look like a vowel-mutated plural in Welsh so an analogical singular form pabell ‘tent’ was formed. The word pebyll is also the source (with an English plural tacked on) of the placename Peebles in Scotland.

    Tykky-Dew [or whichever spelling you feel like using] is the Cornish for butterfly.

  6. Yenlit says:

    I’m more familiar with the “glöyn byw” (live/living ember) Welsh version for butterfly than pili-pala which I always thought was colloquial, South Walian and a hypercorism with its evident alliterative sound and spelling.

    The dictionary has:
    pilipala masculine noun
    PLURAL pilipalod, pilipalau, pilipalas
    South Wales
    ETYMOLOGY: apparently from a south-eastern word pilai = butterfly, from which came a doubling pilai-palai (with a change of vowel in the second element).
    This came possibly from child language – used by adults to infants or among children.
    A final ai in colloquial Welsh generally becomes e (pilai > pile), but in south-east Wales a final e becomes a, hence pili-pala.

    NOTE: also bilibala, as if it were ‘Billy (from) (Y) Bala’ (although such an interpretation was probably not given to this form); and in the valley of the river Tawe it occurs as piliparla.
    Regarding Mark’s “pabell” (pavilion – pafiliwn) in the above comment:
    ..1/ pebyll (= tent) < British < Latin *papili-o < pâpili-ô (= butterfly, tent)

    ..2/ The original form was pebyll (singular, = a tent),
    with the plural pebyllau (= tents) (addition of the suffix –au).

    ..3/ The sequence of vowels e – y is more characteristic of plural nouns in Welsh with singular forms with a – e
    bachgen (= a boy), bechgyn (= boys)

    Other loans from Latin showing this same assimilation:
    castell (= castle), cestyll (= castles)
    maneg (= glove), menyg (= gloves)

    ..4/ The singular form pabell emerged, and pebyll became the plural form

    pabell (= tent), pebyll (= tents)

    ..5/ A similar case of assimilation to the e-y pattern is the loanword macrell (= mackerel), a word of French origin taken from English or directly from French. Besides the plural with the addition of the suffix -od (common in animal / bird / fish names) (macrellod there is the plural form mecryll.

    There is a thought that “glöyn byw” for butterfly the second elelment “byw” at least is probably a corruption of ”Duw” (God) corresponding with Cornish and Breton names for butterfly which also contain 'Duw' ie. Breton dialect “elik doue”, “aelig Doue” (God’s little angel) and the variously spelt Cornish “tegenn dyw”, “tykki-dyw”, “tykky-dew”, “tykki-duw”, “tikki-dui” (there’s probably more?!)

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