Vernacular names for butterflies

Patrick Roper proper at
Thu Apr 23 16:57:31 EDT 1998

One thing that emerges from the debate on vernacular names for *butterfly* in European languages is the frequency of occurrence of one or more central *l*s,


Balafenn (Breton)

Borboleta (Portuguese)

Butterfly (English)

Farfalla (Italian)

Gloyn bew (Welsh)

Kapellen (Old Dutch)

Papilio (Latin and Esperanto))

Papillon (French)

Pilipala (Welsh)

Pillangó (Hungarian)

Pinpilipauxa (Basque)

Schmetterling (German)

Skoenlapper (Afrikaans)

Sommerfugl (Danish)

Tagfalter (German)

Words for butterfly without an *l* seem relatively few, e.g.:-

Mariposa (Spanish)

Tikkidew (Cornish)

Clearly this survey is not comprehensive and subscribers might like to add other examples from European, or non-European, languages.

What seems to be happening (and I do not claim to be much of a linguist) is that words have been coined that make the tongue flap in a rather butterfly-like way. Indeed, words like *flap* and *flutter* do the same. I would go further and say that the strange Cornish word *tikkidew* also has a butterfly-like resonance. These butterfly words’ reference to some other thing like butter or shoemenders may not have had much significance, or may have been a sort of post hoc rationalisation of attempts by the mouth and tongue to imitate the flight of a butterfly. (I am tempted to say this is all tongue in cheek, but I am not going to).

Whatever lies behind this, I feel the debate has been worth it just to have discovered that splendid Basque butterfly word *pinpilipauxa*.

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