butterfly /’bʌtəˌflaɪ/

So I just got back from the movies. In an age of digital downloads, large screen TV’s, and on-demand video, I still prefer the big-screen cinematic experience. Sure, having a 60-inch LCD and a Panasonic surround sound DVD player is a great way to watch films at home, but even then, I tend to do that after seeing them at a local theater. It’s just that sitting in the fifth row and enveloped in sound lets me fall into the story rather than just be a viewer sitting on the couch.

This evening’s escape was The American with George Clooney and the stunningly attractive Violante Placido. Set in Italy, it tells the story of a hit man trying to quit his profession. Visually it’s engaging, and it runs as a slow pace, which is exactly want the movie needs.

Placido and Clooney in the movie the American

Placido and Clooney

About 30 minutes or so into the narrative, there was a close-up shot of Clooney who, during a conversation, turns up the corner of his mouth in a rare, semi-smile. Just like Clint Eastwood in his earlier movies. It was at that point that I realized what I was actually watching: a Spaghetti Western. Just like the westerns of the 70’s, the film is set in Italy; instead of horses, there are cars; and Clooney plays Eastwood.

The giveaway was during a later scene in a bar where folks are watching Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West. I was almost expecting Clooney to turn to the camera and give a little wink! He didn’t – of course – but it was enough to confirm my suspicions.

Spaghetti Western

Called simply Jack, Clooney has a tattoo on his back of a butterfly and Placido calls him affectionately Mr. Farfalle – the Italian for butterfly. If it had been set in France, presumably he would have been Monsieur Papillon.

The word butterfly first appears around 1000 AD in the works of Aelfric of Eynsham, where it’s written as the Old English buttorfleoge. The word fleoge referred at that time to any winged insect, which in turn derived from the hypothesized Old Teutonic *fleugan meaning “to fly.” The prefacing buttor referred to our modern meaning of butter – churned and creamed milk.

The jury is still out on why the butterfly has that name. One suggestion is that butterflies would fly through windows and land on pats of butter, which would seem reasonable if that was typical butterfly behavior. However, it isn’t. Think quickly: when was the last time you saw a butterfly sitting on butter? My guess for most folk is never.

A second – and to me a little more plausible, is that it refers to the buttery color of some butterflies. That has the advantage of at least having some truth even today. There are, of course, some non-butter colored examples, but there is a ring of possibility about it.


A third is based on a Dutch synonym, boterschijte – literally “butter shit,” which refers to the color of butterfly feces. I can’t say that I have spent any time checking this assertion out empirically, and I can also say with some certainty that I don’t intend to be checking out butterfly shit in the near or distant future. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating derivation and as such I would so like it to be true.

Shakespeare appears to have been the first to use it in a figurative sense as meaning:

A vain, gaudily attired person (e.g. a courtier who flutters about the court); a light-headed, inconstant person; a giddy trifler. (OED).

In his King Lear (1605), he writes;

So we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news…

The motion of butterflies as they flit from place to place was the inspiration for another metaphorical use of the word in 1890, where an article in Chamber’s Journal said, “A ‘butterfly’ man rests for a moment to wipe his streaming brow, when the warder’s stern voice bids him proceed with his work.” This use refers to a person or persons whose periods of work or occupation of a place are transitory or seasonal. It appears that this use was also transitory and it is currently rarely used in this manner.

What is still commonly used since its first appearance in 1908 is to describe the fluttering feelings in the stomach caused by stress or tension. By 1944, this reference had become fairly common, as evidenced by an article in an edition of Word Study:

“The expression some aviators use to describe their condition before taking off. They have ‘butterfly stomach’, they say, so marked is the fluttering in the Department of the Interior.”

These days, it’s typically used as part of the phrase, “I have butterflies in my stomach,” with that body part being a common companion to butterfly itself.

It’s also interesting to follow the historical development of butterfly in that the Latin papilionis gave rise to the French papillon, retaining that intial “p” sound, whereas the Italian word became farfalle, with the “p” being substituted by an “f.” This is an example of a process that can happen in languages whereby a specific sound can become weaker and result in a change in how a word is pronounced. In this case, the harder voiceless plosive sound, /p/, loses its explosive quality to become a hissier fricative sound, /f/.

Similar examples can be seen with words like the Latin pedis becoming foot (/p/ to /f/); the Latin pater becoming father, and going back a little more, the Greel pyr became fire. These types of change fascinated the German collector of fairy tales, Jacob Grimm, who went on to realize that there was a general tendency for words to change in this way over time. This notion became knows as “Grimm’s Law.” Jakob also went on, along with his brother , Wilhelm, to establish one of the worlds’ definitive collections of fairy stories and legends.

Finally, a more recent use of butterfly metaphor is in the phrase, the butterfly effect. The specific use of this phrase is usually taken to have originated in 1972 when meteorologist Edward Lorenz presented a paper entitled Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly‘s Wings in Brazil Set a Tornado in Texas? The notion is that small events can have very large consequences, and that there is an element of unpredictability built into the universe.

Oh, and The Butterfly Effect is also the name of a movie from 2004 starring Ashton Kutcher and Amy Smart. Despite the fact that it’s Kutcher, the film is surprisingly good and well worth renting. Kutcher is also the most followed personality on Twitter. Who would have thought that one tweet could cause a storm of interest.

Wordle: butterfly - etymology


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Filed under Etymology, Word Origins

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