Le cul entre les deux chaises

An American Spaniard in France or: How I Learned to Make an Ass of Myself in Three Cultures

Word Mystery: butterfly / mariposa / papillon / farfalla

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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.

photo: Robyn Stacey

photo: Robyn Stacey

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 → mariposaInsecto lepidóptero. [Lepidopteran insect.] ORIGIN Mari + posa, Jesus’s mother and verb form of posar [to rest] from Latin pausāre [to rest, pause].

FR → papillonForme adulte des lépidoptères, à l’exception des mites et des teignes. [Adult lepidopterans, excluding moths and mites.] ORIGIN Latin papilio [butterfly, moth].

IT → farfallainsetto 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.”

Papillon McQueenSpanish 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.

Italian note 2: I don’t speak Italian. I don’t pretend to speak Italian. I don’t even like Italian. As stated above, this post was a request, one to specifically include the Italian word.

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.

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Author: le cul en rows

I'm an American Spaniard, living in France. I like to tell stories.

10 thoughts on “Word Mystery: butterfly / mariposa / papillon / farfalla

  1. My favourite is Italian, because it’s also a pasta shape. Not very logical, but fun.

  2. In German it’s “schmetterling.” Don’t know the etymology of that entomology, though…..and do you remember the “bread and butterflies” in the Disney version of Alice in Wonderland?

    • I don’t know from schmetterling, but that sounds like something to spread on bread! And I’m woefully uneducated in early Disney animations since no one in my family watched them when I was little and when I got older, they just didn’t interest me. Is Alice one of the better ones? (My disinterest stems from poor characterization and the whole I-need-a-man-to-save-me plots. They’re just icky.)

  3. P.S. The taxonomic order mnemonic: “Ken Put Clay On Fred’s Greasy Spectacles.” (Which conjures up an unpleasant image, when you think about it, though in 7th grade I was more intrigued to find out what a mnemonic device was (and with the word “mnemonic” itself.)

    • None of my Spanish students had ever used mnemonics before having me as a teacher which I found shocking considering how many things they regularly have to memorize. For me, some mnemonics are a lot harder than just learning the words though, which was the case for the taxonomy list. It probably took me 15 minutes to learn it over half my life ago and it’s still in there!

  4. Pingback: Reading Digest: Happy Bacon Day Edition | Dead Homer Society

  5. I love this blog post. !! While I love butterflys, I have always been more partial to ladybugs.!! In Croatian, they are called bubamaras. In Spanish, katarinas or mariquita. Thanks for the blog follow too :)

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