Entomology Etymology

Entomology Etymology or A Butterfly by Any Other Name

I loved this video, comparing German to other languages, that I found thanks to @magicalmaths on Twitter, but the words for butterfly had me intrigued… papillon, mariposa, farfalla, schmetterling…. I’m so used to French, Spanish and Italian being very similar to each other, and to English being similar to either French or German that I can’t help but be curious about words that seem to have no common root. I also couldn’t resist the chance to write a blog post entitled “Entomology Etymology” and so I did a bit of research and this is what I discovered.

The Latin for butterfly is papilio, and this is where the French word “papillon” comes from. So far, so good. The Portuguese word for butterfly is “borboleta”, and although I couldn’t find any information on the origins of it, I know that linguistically ‘p’ and ‘b’ are related sounds and so I wonder whether borboleta also comes from the Latin.

Usually Portuguese and Spanish words are extremely similar (if not identical), but the Spanish for butterfly is “mariposa”, and this seems to derive from the phrase “Maria, posate” (land or settle, Mary) which appears in children’s nursery rhymes.

The Italian is “farfalla” and the generally accepted etymology for this seems to be “Nobody knows!” The only suggestion I could find is that it is onomatopoeic for the sound of the wings, but there is no proof of this.

And so on to the English and German words, and this is where it gets really interesting…

It would be lovely to think that the English came from a spoonerism of flutter-by, but alas there is no truth in this. Instead it really does come from butter + fly, possibly because some of the most common butterflies are a creamy-buttery colour, possibly because people once thought that butterflies ate milk and butter, or possibly because people thought that witches turned into butterflies to steal milk and butter – it all depends on which story you choose to believe.

The word came into English via the old Dutch word “botervlieg” and so you may expect the Dutch to have a similar word… but they don’t. The Dutch word for butterfly is “vlinder”!

You could be forgiven for thinking that the German word “schmetterling” had a different origin again, but “schmetten” means “cream” in German and the roots of the word appear to be one of the same three possibilities as the English word – they even have the story about the witches!

I looked at hundreds of words for butterfly, and none of them bear any resemblance to any of the others. It’s “motyl” in Polish, “titli” in Urdu , “faraasha” in Arabic and “sommerfugl” in Danish.

And then…… I came across the Hausa word for butterfly. Of all the words I looked at this was the closest to the English word. In Hausa it’s “bude littafi”.  Coincidence? I have no idea, but if you know better, or if you know the word and etymology of the word butterfly in another language I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

Why is Oktoberfest held in September?

Oktoberfest lasts for 16 days. It starts in late September and finishes on the first Sunday of October – unless the 1st Sunday is before 3rd October, in which case the festival is extended so that it lasts until German Unity Day. This prompted me to ask yesterday, “Why does a nation that generally follow the rules so strictly that they won’t even cross the road on a red man, even when there are no cars to be seen, celebrate Oktoberfest in September?” I decided to find out last night, so I’m sharing my findings, just in case anybody else wondered.

Well, for starters it did used to be held in October.  The first one was a celebration of the marriage of Prince Ludwig (who later became King Ludwig I) to Princess Therese von Sachsen-Hildburghausen. The marriage took place on October 1810, and five days later the people of Munich were invited to festivities which were held on the fields outside one of the town gates.

That first year they had a parade and horse races. The horse races proved so popular that the people decided to repeat the event the following year, and so even though horse racing hasn’t been part of the festival for many years, we have them to thank for the event still being held today. In the second year they also had an agricultural show, by 1816 there were a few carnival stalls and by 1818 the beer stalls that the festival is now renowned for had been added.

But back to my original question. Why is it held in September? It seems the answer is “because the weather is better”! It doesn’t matter to the locals – they don’t even call it Oktoberfest. To them it’s known as Die Wies’n. The fields where the festival was first held were (and still are) called Theresienwiesen (Theresa’s Meadows) in honour of the princess. This name has been shortened locally to die wiesen or die wies’n, and if you don’t call your festival after a month I suppose it doesn’t matter when it is held.

While this story behind the festival is interesting, there is another theory about its origins which sounds equally plausible and you’ll find that here.

And there you have it: the story of Oktoberfest.

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