Every Wednesday, I explore the linguistic origins of one word in different languages I speak.
Special request Word Mystery today from a friend of the family (hi Daniel!), so I don’t have an elaborate expat-related setup, but I do have a weird personal anecdote.
My BFF and I decided a million years ago that “butterfly” would be our code word for “help” in any situation. If one of us couldn’t remember another person’s name while talking to them, we’d mention how odd it was that we’d seen a butterfly earlier that day and the other would come to the rescue. If one of us was in a place we didn’t want to stay, we’d casually drop the insect into the conversation and the other person would make an excuse to get us both out of there.
Once this pattern was established, though thousands of miles away from each other, I kept on using “butterfly” as a password. When moving into a new apartment once, we only had one set of keys for three of us over the weekend, so we left them in an envelope in the bar downstairs. (This was in Barcelona, so a bar is really a coffee shop that also sells beer.) I immediately suggested that “mariposa” be the code word to write on the envelope and that the cashier would demand to anyone picking up the keys. It’s the perfect word for all kinds of situations since it’s innocuous, not commonly said, and, as Bart Simpson learned years after I had, “Nobody ever suspects the butterfly.”
EN → butterfly — an insect with two pairs of large wings that are covered with tiny scales, usually brightly colored, and typically held erect when at rest. ORIGIN Oooooh, a dispute! One version has it as Old English, from butter + fly, possibly because of the color and/or an old belief that the insects stole butter. Another says that it’s Old English butorflēoge, perhaps a compound of butor [beater] + flēoge [fly].
ES → mariposa — Insecto lepidóptero. [Lepidopteran insect.] ORIGIN Mari + posa, Jesus’s mother and verb form of posar [to rest] from Latin pausāre [to rest, pause].
FR → papillon — Forme adulte des lépidoptères, à l’exception des mites et des teignes. [Adult lepidopterans, excluding moths and mites.] ORIGIN Latin papilio [butterfly, moth].
IT → farfalla — insetto dell’ordine dei Lepidotteri con ali dal colore variegato. [Insect of the order Lepidoptera with wings of various colors.] ORIGIN Lombardic dialect (northern Italy/southern Germany), evolved from parpaja, parpalhos.
English note: what fun! The first is definitely a better story but the second makes the most sense.
Spanish note: what a totally disappointing definition, especially considering the great lengths they went to with “turkey.”
Spanish note 2: what the hell, Origin? Seriously, I am asking you to explain what the Virgin Mary and resting have to do with an insect, ’cause I’m not seeing it. You should be ashamed of yourself for being so willfully obtuse.
French note: PAPILLON was the first Steve McQueen movie I ever saw. I never understood why he was a sex symbol. He’s got the face of a boxer.
Italian note: The evolution may not seem obvious but /f/ and /p/ are very close sounds.
Today’s Winner has to be English, right? It’s got two very good possible origin stories and isn’t religious or Latin, so I’m going with that.
Related in my mind
I held the fastest record in my junior high for being able to recite the ranks of biological/taxonomic classification (while still being understood). This is super useful in Jeopardy!-type situations and not at all the rest of the time. For the record, it’s kingdomphylumclassorderfamilygenusspecies. I can still do it under two seconds, so I must have been even faster way back when.