Butterfly Redux.

Back in 2003 I posted about the many and varied words for ‘butterfly’ in the world’s languages; I’m pleased to see the subject has come up again in Victor Mair’s latest Log post. Mair starts off by mentioning an absurd attempt to make butterfly equal “butter” + “shit” (as I started off with an absurd account of “cognate borrowing” by an anthropologist), but he moves on to a detailed account of the history of the Chinese word húdié 蝴蝶 / 胡蝶, “which is botched in almost all lexicographical sources”: it’s “from Middle Chinese *ɣo dep (first syllable unstressed), from Old Chinese *ɡa-lep, derived from a proto-form of *kʰleːp ~ *ɦleːp, a prefixed form of the root *lep (“wide, flat”, represented by the phonetic element 枼).” The post is well worth reading for that alone, but the comments include many interesting examples, some of which are startlingly similar to *lep: DE brings up Hungarian lepke, and I cite Wolof lëpp-lëpp bi, mentioned by Tim May in the earlier LH thread. I continue to be amazed by the fascinating variety of these words, which are so frequently poetic-sounding.

Comments

  1. David Eddyshaw says:

    Hausa has

    malam-buɗe-littafi

    “Mr-Open-the-Book”

    The ancient LH thread that Juha just posted to has a post by Charles Perry saying that in Harer the term for butterfly is “Amharic book”

  2. I thought I’d commented here about the etymology of ‘butterfly’, but apparently not. Here’s something I wrote in a comment on the Volokh Conspiracy in 2006, before they were picked up by the Washington Post. I used a pseudonym, as i do when posting on political sites (I’m a teacher, and don’t care to discuss my politics with students) but I did write it. I will quote my note entire, since I had trouble finding it in their neglected pre-WP archives, and it’s more pertinent to this site:

    “There are worse possible derivations, including what appears to be the true one: If you read (and who doesn’t?) R. B. Onians, The Origins of European Thought about the Body, the Mind, the Soul, the World, Time, and Fate (Cambridge, 1951), you will learn more than you probably want to know about how the ancient Greeks thought brain matter, spinal fluid, marrow, and semen were essentially the same thing, the very stuff of life, the fluid that makes the difference between a dried-up corpse and a moist live human. Add M. Davies and J. Kathirithamby, The Greek Insects (Oxford, 1986), pp. 104-7, and you will find that the butterfly was called psyche, ‘soul’, because it was thought to be or somehow represent the soul of a dead human. The illustrations on pp. 104-5 of the latter book depict ejaculating phalli (one of a herm, the other of a flute-player) with butterflies floating above the stream. As D and K note (106), “The juxtaposition of semen and butterfly may also remind us that some modern European names for this insect similarly connect it with liquid vel sim. that possesses nutritive power (English butter-fly, German Molkendieb (whey-thief) etc.).” Their footnote on that sentence refers to a couple of obscure German sources not available to me, “Immisch, Glotta 6 (1915) 197, R. Riegler ap. Bächtold-Stäubli, Handwörterbuch des deutschen Aberglaubens 7.1246″, and adds “English etymology seems baffled by butterfly (OED and Onions, Dictionary of English Etymology can only suggest a derivation from the appearance of the creature’s excrement in view of the Dutch synonym Boterschijte, though the latter cites the German terms mentioned above). In one of William Blake’s illustrations to his Songs of Innocence and Experience we see ‘The organ of generation . . . with the generative principle breaking from its crest in the form of tiny winged . . . figures’ (G. Keynes in his edition (Oxford 1970) on pl. 11).”

    “In short, ‘butterfly’ is a euphemism for ‘semenfly’. (Note: C. T. Onions the erroneous lexicographer is not the same person as R. B. Onians the palaeoanthropologist.)

    “Finally, Nabokov thought ‘butterfly’ might be a metathesis of ‘flutter-by’. I think he would have been delighted by the actual rather obscene source.”

    So much for my Volokh post. There are other pertinent comments by myself and others on the thread, which can be found here here.

  3. Trond Engen says:

    Hausa has malam-buɗe-littafi

    Folk-etymologized in English as “Madam Butterfly”

  4. David Marjanović says:

    many interesting examples, some of which are startlingly similar to *lep

    BCSM leptir.

    I think it was here where we were taught the Yorùbá word: labalábá

    See also: MAJESTIC FLAPFLAP

    Molkendieb

    New to me. But there’s Slavic cream in the normal word, Schmetterling.

  5. We also covered lep-lep-lepidopterans here:

    http://languagehat.com/kin-dza-dza/

  6. David Marjanović says:

    Aw, that one’s a coincidence: lepis = scale, as in Lepidosauria = tuataras and lizards-incl.-snakes.

  7. I particularly like the Ancient Greek word for ‘butterfly’ (the one Don Ringe couldn’t recall on Language Log, presumably because it’s too obvious): ψῡχή.

  8. gwenllian says:

    many interesting examples, some of which are startlingly similar to *lep

    BCSM leptir.

    Don’t know if it’s correct, but a dictionary entry for leptir gives a Russian dialect example, too:

    onom. ≃ bug. dijal. lepir: vampir, rus. dijal. lepen’: leptir

  9. Is there a plausible etymology for moth, beyond Proto-Germanic?

    While I am at it, what languages make an obligatory distinction between butterfly and moth, as English does? Hebrew does, parpar ‘butterfly’ vs. ʕaš ‘moth’ in Modern Hebrew, though for the latter there’s also the Biblical saːs and the modern but obsolescent parpar laila ‘night butterfly’.

  10. Why “erroneous lexicographer”? I’m not aware that C. T. Onions was any more erroneous than any other Or do you mean that his name was erroneously spelled?

  11. No, I’m saying he’s erroneous because he thinks (as many do) that the name ‘butterfly’ has something to do with excrement. It seems to me that Davies and Kathirithamby, following Onians-with-an-A and (presumably) the two sources they reference that I haven’t seen, are entirely correct about the etymology. I’m just trying to bring their conclusions to the general public – or whatever part of the general public is interested in etymologies.

  12. While I am at it, what languages make an obligatory distinction between butterfly and moth, as English does?

    Japanese does ((ko)chō or ga), and both are loanwords from Chinese, so presumably Chinese does too (or did).

  13. Since I was the one who mentioned lëpp-lëpp bi the other time, I thought I’d better check it in a more reliable source than whatever internet word list I turned to in 2003. Ay Baati Wolof: A Wolof Dictionary by Pamela Munro and Dieynaba Gaye does indeed have the word. But it’s just lëpp-lëpp; it turns out bi is an article. The variant form lëppaalëpp is also listed.

  14. Trond Engen says:

    Norwegian sommerfugl vs. møll. Sommerfugl is obviously young, replacing older fivril (and similar forms) < ON. fifrildi < PIE *pe-pe(H)l-something. (Butterflies are *pe-pe(H)l- too!) Møll looks like a (near-)cognate to Eng. moth, < PG *maþlu- or something.

  15. David Marjanović says:

    Is there a plausible etymology for moth, beyond Proto-Germanic?

    Kroonen (2011: 219) mentions Russian мотыль after reconstructing PGmc. nominative *maþō, genitive *muttaz. I can’t currently get p. 221 to display.

    what languages make an obligatory distinction between butterfly and moth

    German makes another obligatory distinction: Motte is reserved for the tiny ones whose larvae eat flour or clothes depending on the species. The rest is Schmetterling by default; the nocturnal ones, which are all moths in English, are often specified as Nachtschmetterling or, in zoological works at least, Nachtfalter. In contradistinction, Tagfalter occurs out there. Falter alone, literally “folder”, is rare.

  16. marie-lucie says:

    French:

    butterfly: le papillon (Lat papilio(n-)

    moth: a) le papillon de nuit “butterfly of the night”
    b) la mite ‘clothes moth’ (lays eggs in wool, larvae eat wool)

  17. Re: moths vs. butterflies: Gk. ψῡχή means both. Polish has motyl ‘butterfly’ (possibly a cognate of Germanic *maþan- ‘moth, maggot’) and ćma, gen. ciem ‘moth’ (a semantic specialisation of Slavic *tьma ‘darkness’, from the root *temh₁-).

  18. Trond Engen says:

    Being on my way out I made my comment without checking Bjorvand & Lindeman, but they don’t mention møll. Polish motyl looks like a good match for my postulate, though.

  19. We also have mól ‘clothes moth’ (Russ. моль, etc.; also borrowed into Hungarian as moly), which looks like a more probable cognate of the Scandinavian word.

  20. Trond Engen says:

    Yes. If not a borrowing.

  21. Estonian and Finnish have koi meaning “(clothes) moth”, which has similar-sounding counterparts in Turkic and Mongolic languages:

    tatari köja ‘koi’,
    baškiiri köjä ‘koi’,
    usbeki kuja ‘koi’,
    burjaadi hujr ‘koi’

    koi

  22. My favorite butterfly term is Welsh iâr fach yr haf, literally “little chicken of the summer”.

  23. Danish has a three-way distinction:

    day-active butterfly = sommerfugl, transparently “summer bird”;
    moth = night-active butterfly = natsværmer, transparently “night swarmer”;
    moth = Tineidae and similar small, rarely-spotted pests = møl, opaque inherited word. (ON mǫlr, actor noun from *melh₂-?)

    Taxonomically these are all sommerfugle, the other terms denote polyphyletic groups.

  24. Trond Engen says:

    Norwegian follows Danish here, but we also have the dialect form mott = møll. The distinction between møll and nattsvermer** isn’t that clear, but møll are smaller and generally colorless*.

    The ON spelling mǫlr with single l does indicate something other than *-þl-, and the acc.pl. malu, makes it clear it’s a u-stem. Also (as I should have remembered), it’s the first element of malurtArtemisia vulgaris. This vascillation between umlauted ǫ and un-umlauted a is typical of u-stems.

    *) Norwegian Wikipedia tells me that møll is roughly covered by the paraphyletic group Microlepidoptera, nattsvermere is Lepidoptera minus Rhopalocera.

    **) Nattsvermeren was the Norwegian title of Silence of the lambs.

  25. @Trond, it was not clear from Danish Wikipedia that Rhodalocera (dagsommerfugle to the expert) was anything but an informal grouping, but I see now that current knowledge points to them as an actual monophyletic clade. How odd when it seems that everything else in taxonomy has been turned upside down or inside out by DNA analysis!

    So natsværmere are paraphyletic, not polyphyletic — and Danish lepidopterists might have a monophyletic definition of møl as well. But in traditional naming, lots of little moths from different branches have been called møl, even though they don’t live in your drawers so their larvae can eat your stuff.

  26. David Marjanović says:

    moth = night-active butterfly = natsværmer, transparently “night swarmer”;

    Nachtschwärmer also shows up in German, sometimes metaphorically for nocturnal people.

  27. Nattsvermeren was the Norwegian title of Silence of the Lambs

    Interesting that they chose a different image from the book/movie for the Norwegian title; I wonder why?

  28. Trond Engen says:

    Because of the role of moths in the plot in combination with its established usage “metaphorically for nocturnal people”. Quite clever, that way. Also, I’m not sure if tweaking stille som et lam “quiet as a lamb” would work as well in Norwegian as in English. Part of the reason why it works in English is that the rhythm of the expressions being the same make the connection more transparent.

  29. Trond Engen says:

    makes (I first wrote “rhythm and syntax”.)

  30. ” I continue to be amazed by the fascinating variety of these words, which are so frequently poetic-sounding.”

    I think they call that iconicity.

  31. Giacomo Ponzetto says:

    Italian has a four-fold distinction of lepidoptera:

    Butterfly, day-active: farfalla (uncertain, perhaps phonosymbolic)
    Moth, night-active: falena (from Greek)
    Moth, cloth-eating: tarma (from Latin), or regionally camola (uncertain)
    Moth, plant-eating: tignola (from Latin)

    The distinction between the last three is surely not ironclad, since it isn’t scientific. But at least subjectively I find it reasonably clear-cut.

  32. Fascinating! I wonder if that’s the record? (Probably not, given the variety of human language.)

  33. This is great. In Hebrew, the distinction butterfly–night butterfly–clothes moth (ʕaš) is obviously based on a European model, perhaps German. When I was small it took me a long time to realize what an ʕaš was. I knew it damaged clothes, but supposed it was invisible.
    Parpar is a modern innovation, perhaps Ben Yehuda’s.

  34. Miller is also an obsolete/dialectal English word for moth. I’ve read it comes from the white powder that many moths shed when touched, but maybe this is a folk etymology.

  35. The world for butterfly in modern Greek is «πεταλούδα», from the ancient «πεταλίς», and for some strange reason (well, strange to me) the expression «πεταλούδες της νύχτας» (night butterflies) is used to describe women active in the oldest profession of the world. It might have to do with butterflies flying from one flower to the next, or something.

  36. Ancient Greek πεταλίς ‘butterfly’? I think the closest entomological thing Ancient Greek had was πετηλίς ‘locust’. I don’t know the details, but it seems obvious that πεταλούδα is derived from πέταλον ‘leaf, petal, flake’. Ancient Greek ψῡχή is the reason why you can often find a butterfly in paintings depicting Cupid and Psyche, like here (Gérard) and here (David).

  37. Reflexes of Proto-Austronesian *baŋbaŋ, Proto-Oceanic *bebe can mean ‘butterfly’, ‘moth’, and also ‘butterfly fish’. In Niue (in Polynesia), the introduced butterfly pea vine (Clitoria terneata) is also called pepe ‘butterfly’, and the Fijian words for ‘butterfly’ and ‘vagina’ (probably from the shape of the labia) are near homophones: bēbē vs. bebe.

  38. Rodger C: The OED accepts it, saying that miller is applied to various white-powdered insects and (in the form dusty miller) even to plants whose leaves are covered with white powder.

  39. Trond Engen says:

    There seem to be two stems extended from the root mel “make flour” that made it into Germanic. While *mel-H- gave the “mill” words, the “meal” (flour) words come from *mel-w-. Reading B&L’s entry on ‘mel’, I see that there’s an ON verb mølva “shred to dust” < PG *malwijan-. Could the stem element *malw- have been nominalized as *malwuz n.m. “fine dust” > mǫlr “moth”? I think older Nynorsk mòl is attested with the additional meaning “fine dust”, but Norsk Ordbok 2014 is down tonight.

    There’s also a mǫl n.f. “reef or bank made of pebbles”. I have one in my neighbourhood.

  40. Giacomo Ponzetto says:

    @Ariadne: in Italian too a falena is a night-active moth, but it can also be a practitioner of the world’s oldest profession, though the latter usage is comically old-fashioned if not obsolete. My understanding of the rationale is that both are liable to be found at night under lampposts.

  41. Just to complicate things, Italian falena comes (as Giacomo Ponzetto notes) from Greek φάλλαινα, which means ‘whale’ (Latin ballaena) as well as ‘moth’ (?!?), and is related (I think I have read) to φαλλός, “membrum virile, phallus, or a figure thereof, borne in procession in the cult of Dionysus as an emblem of the generative power in nature” (as Liddell, Scott, and Jones discretely put it). What the three have in common is not obvious.

    Unfortunately, I’m working and living in two different places at the moment, and my copies of the new Brill Etymological Dictionaries of Greek and Latin are in the other one at the moment. I’ll be back there tomorrow night and see what they say.

  42. De Vaan (Latin) and Beekes (Greek) are also perplexed about the whale/moth connection. Among others, Beekes mentions this old article by Immisch, which I haven’t read.

  43. Trond Engen says:

    I’m out of moderation!

    the whale/moth connection

    Behemoth.

  44. Trond,

    ON mølva corresponds to Goth. (ga)malwjan; it’s the iterative of the u-extended variant of *melh₂- (*melh₂u-), *molw-éje/o- (with the laryngeal lost due to the Saussure effect) > PGmc. *malw-ī/ija-. This variant of the root is rare, found in Tocharian and in Germanic, and only in this iterative stem (though the type it represents is quite well known). Germanic also has the practically synonymous iterative *molh₂-éje/o- > *mal-ī/ija- > ON melja. Of course nouns could be derived from either variant of the root. Thanks to Matthew, who mentioned the clothes moth (6:19), we have the Gothic word for it, malō. The Slavic word (molь) is an i-stem. The combined evidence of Gothic and Slavic would be compatible with an acrostatic root noun (*mól(h₂)-/*mélh₂), perhaps coexisting with a u-stem. This would of course require more research, buth these ‘moth, clothes moth’ words are very interesting and look archaic.

  45. David Marjanović says:

    this old article by Immisch, which I haven’t read

    Says the phallus, whales and butterflies are all “swollen”, mentioning that butterflies are always depicted overly bloated in ancient Greek art.

  46. It seems to me that Davies and Kathirithamby, following Onians-with-an-A and (presumably) the two sources they reference that I haven’t seen, are entirely correct about the etymology.

    As far as I can see, Davies and Kathirithamby don’t propose any etymology; they just note (what seems to them) an interesting parallel between a “juxtaposition” of butterflies with semen in ancient Greece and later Germanic terms connecting them with other “liquid[s] vel sim. that possesses nutritive power”, and that the etymology of English butterfly is not confidently known. Clearly they imagine that some sort of connection is possible, but it seems a bit of a leap to conclude that “‘butterfly’ is a euphemism for ‘semenfly’”.

  47. Trond Engen says:

    butterflies are always depicted overly bloated in ancient Greek art.

    Oh, the etymological phallusy.

  48. Φάλλαινα is mentioned by Nicander of Colophon (2nd c. BC) in his poetic treatise Theriaca, dealing with venomous/poisonous animals. He explains is as ψώρα, which is not very informative, since we don’t know what exactly it meant to him (‘itch, mange’ is the most common sense, but he presumably means some sort of vermin), or as ψῡχή ‘moth/butterfly’; he also says the word is used in Rhodes for creatures that flutter round a lamp (so a dialectal term for nocturnal ‘moths’).

  49. Trond Engen says:

    Which reminds me that the Germanic “whale” word is a riddle of its own. Not that I think there’s any way to connect it to phallus.

    I got the idea it might be from the *kwel- root, either for the round shape of a big whale (ON hváll “low roundish hill”), or for their movements when they break the surface (ON hvalfa “turn over; fall over”, h. upp “come up, become known”).

  50. By the way, femninine φάλλαινα presupposes masculine *φάλλων, which itself must be derived from φαλλός (originally, perhaps, anything bloated or swollen, not necessarily a phallus; cf. φάλλη = φάλλαινα). If -λλ- reflects *-ln- here, φαλλός may be etymologically identical with Albanian blî, blini (Gheg), bli, bliri (Tosk) ‘sturgeon’ < Proto-Alb. *blina- *bʰl̥-nó- (Cimochowski 1949). Perhaps, as argued by Cimochowski, the Greek word for ‘whale’ goes back to an older Indo-European term for ‘sturgeon’ or some other huge freshwater fish. It also makes the word a very close cousin of Germanic *bullan- ‘bull’.

  51. I think we’re forgetting something important about whales that makes them phallic, beyond their “bloated” shape: the fact that when they emerge from the water, they often spurt or “spout” quantities of liquid from smallish orifices on the tops of their heads, and seem to do so quite enthusiastically. And it’s not just the ‘sperm’ whales that do that, though their name may have helped remind me of this pertinent fact. (I hope none my middle- and high-school students are reading this.)

  52. David Marjanović says:

    I got the idea it might be from the *kwel- root, either for the round shape of a big whale (ON hváll “low roundish hill”), or for their movements when they break the surface (ON hvalfa “turn over; fall over”, h. upp “come up, become known”).

    Can we make this work for Latin squalus? (And do we know what exactly that meant – the modern derivates are all based on the assumption that it meant “shark”, but is that actually clear?)

  53. Which reminds me that the Germanic “whale” word is a riddle of its own.

    German Wels ‘sheatfish’ < *xʷalisa- (the Vernerian feminine weak-noun variant, OHG walira, means ‘whale’) and Old Prussian kalis ‘sheatfish’ again suggest that whales may have been named after a big fish known to IE-speakers before they went to sea and sighted their first whale.

  54. Carp or catfish, in other words.

  55. marie-lucie says:

    What could be the “sheat” in “sheatfish”?

  56. Sheatfish and European sturgeons can grow well over 2 meters long. Early lexicographers often defined sheatfish as ‘whale of the river’ (John Rider, 1589, who used the spelling sheath fish) or ‘river whale’ (John Wilkins, 1668).

    The name is a loan from German (Schaidfisch ~ Schaiden) < OHG sceida. Little is known of its origin. The similarity to the Germanic word for ‘sheath’ (*skaiþiz) is probably accidental. The common Balto-Slavic word for the fish (Slavic *somъ, Lith. šãmas, Latv. sams) is likewise obscure. It’s pre-form should be *ḱomos. The only connection I can think of would be with Greek κόμη ‘hair of the head’, as the sheatfish’s “whiskers” (barbels) are its prominent feature; but the Greek word is itself of uncertain origin.

  57. marie-lucie says:

    Thank you Piotr, I knew about sturgeons but not about this fish.

  58. Alon Lischinsky says:

    @Y:

    While I am at it, what languages make an obligatory distinction between butterfly and moth, as English does?

    Spanish is a bit of an odd case. The Academy insists that mariposa covers all Lepidoptera, and uses mariposa nocturna for moths, but I’ve never heard the latter in actual use. Google Ngrams finds it far less common than the demotic polilla, and so does CORDE, so my money is on bad lexicography there.

    Confusingly, Portuguese has mariposa for moth (well, Brazilian Portuguese; European Portuguese uses traça), while butterflies are borboletas.

  59. Interesting. So someone could just as well be a φαλλοκράτης φαλαινοθήρας (a male chauvinist whaler) and have no idea that the two are related.

  60. Here’s one caught last year in the Vistula. The angler measured it and released it back into the river, where it can hopefully grow even bigger.

  61. Something wrong with the link. Let me try again.

  62. The “dolphin” being ridden on the Gundestrup cauldron is obviously a fish of this sort.

  63. marie-lucie says:

    What a fish! Thanks Piotr.

  64. @Rodger, it is certainly not a whale of any sort — and it’s much larger than the harbor porpoise, which was probably the only whale that was known to Northern Europeans before deep sea sailing took off. (Mediterranean sailors would have know about bottlenose dolphins which can be a bit bigger, but I think the Celts who made the cauldron were inland dwellers).

    Why don’t archeologists go ask their biologist friends what something could be before pulling a designation out of a hat? (Or other dark place?)

    On the other hand it does remind me of the sort of illustrations that people came up with in the middle ages, based on third-fourth hand descriptions of exotic animals — unicorns from rhinoceroses, for instance. A story about a dolphin rescuing a sailor could conceivably turn into this, if the only large aquatic animals you know are fish. But then, why the barbels?

  65. marie-lucie says:

    In traditional Chinese iconography dragons are often represented with such barbels. Dragons are made up of bits and pieces of various animals, perhaps to be at home in all parts of the world: earth, sky, water: carnivorous animals with wings, scales like snakes or fish, sometimes horns, so could the barbels recall giant river fish?

  66. @m-l, a Chinese dragon on an iron age Celtic artwork — why not? And maybe it’s flying, not swimming. They don’t all have wings, IIRC.

  67. On the other hand it does remind me of the sort of illustrations that people came up with in the middle ages, based on third-fourth hand descriptions of exotic animals — unicorns from rhinoceroses, for instance.

    Well, Dürer’s dolphins look pretty fishy too, and have catfish whiskers.

  68. So there was transmission of how a dolphin was imagined from iron-age Celts to medieval Germans! There must be a Ph.D in that, tenure and two book contracts at least.

  69. But yes, the thing on the cauldron may look like a Wels, but it might represent more or less anything in the mythical situation depicted — of which I gather that we know next to nothing. Even a dolphin, but has anybody ever given specific reasons to believe that, as opposed to dragons or catfish?

  70. Trond Engen says:

    Piotr: German Wels ‘sheatfish’ < *xʷalisa- (the Vernerian feminine weak-noun variant, OHG walira, means ‘whale’) and Old Prussian kalis ‘sheatfish’ again suggest that whales may have been named after a big fish known to IE-speakers before they went to sea and sighted their first whale.

    B&L accept the connection wuth wals as well as kalis and cite both opinions on the direction of the semantic extension, without offering one of their own or a deeper etymology. I was thinking that by deriving it from *kʷel-, we’s even settle the the question of who came first. But I was wrong about that. Another fish word with limited etymology is No. størje, Eng. sturgeon < Gmc. *sturjo-. EtymOnline says it may be from the root of stir (< *sturjan-). Interestingly, that root, *(s)twer-, is glossed as “turn, whirl”, synonomous to the root *kʷel-.

  71. I agree that the thing on the cauldron looks more fish-like (scales, rayed fins) than dolphin-like, and its barbels suggest a sheatfish (though its fin anatomy definitely does not). The iconography of the cauldron, however, shows Mediterranean and Near Eastern influence, and the motif of dolphin-riding humans or deities (a Greek speciality) was probably the source of inspiration for the artist. It’s clear that he knew as much about actual dolphins as he did about rhinos and elephants.

  72. Trond Engen says:

    OPr. kalis is approaching Finnish kala “fish”.

  73. the sort of illustrations that people came up with in the middle ages, based on third-fourth hand descriptions of exotic animals

    My favorite case is the mutton-tree with sheep growing out of it, a reinterpretation of the notion that in India wool g(really cotton, of course) grew on trees.

  74. marie-lucie says:

    Yes, that’s a cute one!

  75. David Marjanović says:

    I had no idea there are rhinos and elephants on that kettle!

    the notion that in India wool g(really cotton, of course) grew on trees

    Cotton is still called Baumwolle in German. (Kattun is extinct, and I’m not even sure if it meant cotton in general.)

  76. marie-lucie says:

    the notion that in India wool g(really cotton, of course) grew on trees

    Cotton does grow on bushes. The funny thing is the misunderstanding that sheep, not just their wool, grew on trees.

    Baumwolle in German

    and similar compounds in other Germanic languages (if I remember rightly from European tags on clothes and linens).

    penguin wool

    When I was a child we heard of a family whose babysitter told the children Le pingouin est l’animal qui donne la laine ‘the penguin is the animal that gives wool’. She had deduced this from having seen and perhaps used balls of knitting wool labelled Laines du Pingouin, a well-known brand.

  77. and similar compounds in other Germanic languages

    bomull/bomull/bomuld (se/no/da)
    puuvill/puuvilla (ee/fi) puu “tree” + vill/villa “wool” (an old Baltic loan: vilna lt/lv)

  78. Katun in Danish was a name for cotton (last cite 1725, spelled Cattun) and more recently “a canvas-like, rather tightly woven cotton fabric, often printed in coloured patterns” (last cite 1891, used for a matron’s dress). As always, probably borrowed through German or Dutch.

  79. marie-lucie says:

    I think the Dutch word is katoen. Since the Dutch were in Indonesia where cotton textiles are produced, Dutch is more likely to be the origin.

    a matron’s dress

    What do you mean?

  80. David Marjanović says:

    Pingouin to mean “penguin”? I can hear the prescriptivists cringe 🙂

    “a canvas-like, rather tightly woven cotton fabric, often printed in coloured patterns”

    Ah, that’s probably what the German version meant.

  81. marie-lucie says:

    David, what is your problem with pingouin? It is a good French word!

    I was under the impression that it was borrowed from Breton, but the TLFI says it is from Dutch “pinguin”, of unknown origin, supposedly popularized in French from Dutch travel books (Tasman, perhaps?). That does make more sense than Breton, unless the word originally referred to another bird or animal. It is attested in French from the 1500’s but in a variety of spellings until the modern one in the 18C.

  82. @m-l, in the sense of “mature woman”: den gamle Madam Stub […] i sin blommede Kattunskjole. Not a property of the dress but of its wearer in the citation, possibly marking the fabric and its name as dated even in 1891.

  83. The older etymology for penguin/pingouin derived it from Welsh/Breton pen ‘head’ + gwyn ‘white’, because the original penguin, also known as the Great Auk, Pinguinus impennis has a white patch on its head. (Like the penguins of the Southern Hemisphere, the Great Auk was flightless, though unrelated to them: it is extinct, having been slaughtered out of hand and last seen in 1852.) But this is not a well-formed Welsh compound, it seems, so now we are stuck with “etymology unknown”.

  84. marie-lucie says:

    Lars: matron

    Of course it had to be a word for a woman not a dress, but “matron” could mean different things. When I first encountered the word in English, coming to the US as a student, I never heard the word but saw it written in the phrase a young matron which apparently referred to a young married woman (probably in her early 20’s). A matron of honor was like a bridesmaid but already married. These meanings were hardly compatible with French une matrone which would refer to an at least middle-aged woman, long married, her overweight body adversely affected by many pregnancies. Hence my query!

  85. marie-lucie says:

    JC: The older etymology for penguin/pingouin derived it from Welsh/Breton pen ‘head’ + gwyn ‘white’, because the original penguin, also known as the Great Auk, Pinguinus impennis has a white patch on its head. … But this is not a well-formed Welsh compound, it seems, so now we are stuck with “etymology unknown”.

    I guess the order of the components is not right (head+white could not mean ‘white head’) but what about ‘white (on the) head’?

    About the French spelling pingouin, I guess the o was added in order to prevent the original gu from being interpreted as just [g] rather than [gw]. The word has two syllables: pin-gouin.

  86. @m-l, I have never encountered that US sense so I used the word more or less as in French.

  87. I find young matron to be more or less paradoxical, like stone lion (lions are after all not made of stone, but one knows what is meant). I know it is used in certain contexts, but matron by itself means (per the AHD) ‘a married woman or a widow, especially a mother of dignity, mature age, and established social position’, which sounds closer to the French etymon.

  88. marie-lucie says:

    JC: Closer to the French etymon, but except when referring to ancient Roman society une matrone is rather pejorative. You would never want to hear your mother or your wife referred to by that word.

    I came to Canada during the time when there was trouble in British Columbia with the Doukhobor situation (a sect of people of Russian origin who were helped by Tolstoy to emigrate, hoping to maintain their religious beliefs and associated practices). The government objected to various aspects of their way of life, some of the leaders were jailed, etc. One of the Doukhobors’ tactics was for male and female elders to demonstrate in the streets totally naked, something which had great effect on the government and police, who did not quite know how to deal with the nude crowd.

    Around that time I bought a book on Canada written by a French journalist, who among other things mentioned the Doukhobor situation. About the demonstrations by naked women, most of them more than mature, he wrote: Spectacle horrible, ce sont des matrones!

  89. @m-l: The adjective matronly is definitely compatible with the French senses that you describe. As Cambridge puts it, “A matronly woman, usually one who is not ​young, is ​fat and does not ​dress in a ​fashionable way.”

  90. @ David M.: Kattun
    As Duden has it: sehr festes Gewebe aus Baumwolle “very strong fabric made of cotton”.
    Not a word one meets in everyday use.

  91. I used matron to mirror Danish Madam, which both in address and reference has almost the same implications as JC’s AHD sense. (I’m not sure if motherhood is that strongly implied, except insofar as it was implied by being married and not young in the 19th century).

  92. Alon Lischinsky says:

    @marie-lucie:

    except when referring to ancient Roman society une matrone is rather pejorative. You would never want to hear your mother or your wife referred to by that word.

    I suppose this has to do with the changing social values attached to a youthful physique. The Spanish equivalent matrona used to be positive, emphasising dignity and respectability, but these days it seems a minced accusation of flabbiness.

    Confusingly, in Spain (and only in Spain) the term is in common use for ‘midwife’, which elsewhere is a comadrona or partera.

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