Butterfly Words

Monarch butterflies, Monterey, California, Nov. 2011

Monarch butterflies, Monterey, California, Nov. 2011

My love of butterflies began with language. One late spring day in 1997 I was on a group hike, celebrating a friend’s birthday. Someone saw a butterfly and mentioned that he liked the French word for it: “papillon.” I shared that I’d long been partial to the Spanish word, “mariposa.” I realized there were people from several countries on the hike and got curious about their words for butterfly. Before the hike was over, I knew “farfalla” (Italian), “schmetterling” (German), “falter” (also German), and “leptir” (Serbo-Croatian).

Learning words for butterfly became a hobby. I called it my “butterfly collection.” When I heard people speak with accents, prior to this interest I’d feel shy about asking where they were from, but now I had a reason to ask, and ask I did. In a few years I learned thirty-five words for butterfly.

A few of my favorite butterfly words are “babochka” (Russian), “p’ch” (Wolof, a language spoken in Senegal), and “colibangbang” (Ilocano, a language spoken in the Phillipines). I noticed that many butterfly words start with an “f,” “b,” or “p” and have an “r” for a second consonant. Examples include borboleta (Portuguese), fjäril (Swedish), farasha (Arabic), parpar (Hebrew), and paruparo (Tagalog).  I mentioned this to a linguist friend, and she pointed out that the /f/, /b/, and /p/ sounds are closely related. They are all made at the front of the mouth. I find it fascinating that these languages are connected.

Over the years, my interest in butterfly words translated into a special fondness for those colorful creatures. Recently my online poetry group explored the poetry of Valerie Worth and then wrote poems inspired by her style. Butterflies were a natural topic for me. That poem is below. For plentiful links to poems and uplifting, butterfly-worthy colors, visit Jama’s Alphabet Soup. Thank you Jama for hosting Poetry Friday!


The butterfly
jumps around
its flight-
fancy, color-

so beautiful
glide or
maybe waltz
or even

But these 
this way
and that,
as if
distracted by 
their own

© Karin Fisher-Golton, 2013
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20 Responses to Butterfly Words

  1. This is a beautiful post Karin, and so fascinating. I also find the similarities across languages for many things intriguing. It demonstrates that observation and understanding come first. Names are tagged on as an afterthought.

    • Thank you, Stephen! I imagine you have a lot of opportunities to notice fascinating aspects of language. Are butterflies called “ditali” where you are?

      • तितली is the Hindi word for butterfly, pronounced TITaLEE. I think this sound reflects the delicate fluttering of these gentle creatures quite nicely.

      • Thank you! I love having it spelled in the Hindi here. Yes, I agree, the word sounds like the movement. It’s a lovely one. The Wolof word, “p’ch” sounds like the movement, too.

  2. Yael Golton says:

    I enjoyed the story and your butterfly poem.

  3. jama says:

    Delightful post — lovely poem and I enjoyed learning about your butterfly collection. Fascinating to read all those butterfly words . . . 🙂

  4. Cathy Ballou Mealey says:

    Thank you for teaching me all these lovely new words for butterfly!

    Beautiful poem too.

  5. I’ve long been fan of “papillon” and “mariposa” – how brilliant of you to track down a few dozen more names for butterfly in so many wonderful languages! Thanks for sharing your musings and your poem.

    Oh – and what a fun welcome limerick on your home page! Thanks for sharin’!

  6. I love the idea of your “butterfly collection” – true collector of words! I also love the lines:
    “But these beauties dart this way and that, as if distracted by their own brilliant wings.”
    Thank you for sharing!=)

  7. Carol says:

    Love the idea of collecting all of the words for butterfly. I teach at a dual language (English/Spanish) school, but I think kids would love choosing a word and finding that word in as many languages as they could.
    Also love your poem. You capture the beauty of butterflies so perfectly. They should have a fancy way of moving! Thanks

    • Thank you, Carol! That’s such a wonderful class activity idea. I’ve thought occasionally that it would be fun to try this with a different word, but to find words alongside others doing the same sounds extra interesting. If you try it, please come back and tell me how it goes.

  8. maryleehahn says:


  9. mdhbarnes says:

    I love how this poem dances and especially the image of them darting this way and that as if distracted by their own brilliant wings.

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