Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Butterflies: entomology and etymology

It's that time of year when summer seems so distant. Let's have a little glimpse of it with the ongoing discussion at the Guardian's Letters page of the many nice words in different languages for "butterfly": see Buttervogel, pinpilinpauxa, bimbi: the global butterfly effect goes on and on. At insects.org, Butterfly etymology covers even more: but the etymologies are sometimes biologically problematical. Are they interested in butter; or milk-thieves, as in the German dialect "Molkendieb")? Are they seen as little old women, as in the Russian бабочка ("babochka")? In Wilhelm Oehl and the Butterfly at OUPblog, Anatoly Liberman offers a different theory: that in whatever language, these pretty stories are just folk-elaborations on simple onomatopoeic words for the butterfly's wing-flapping.

Anatoly Liberman - here's his regular Oxford Etymologist blog - is the author of Word Origins ... and how we know them (Oxford University Press, 2005, ISBN-10: 0195161475) which looks rather fun. Targeted at the lay reader, it discusses etymologies but, crucially, also the processes by which etymologies are discovered (and created): an antidote to the genre of cut-and-dried etymologies of newspaper columns and popular books (and, of course, the Internet - you may have received the ghastly "Life in the 1500s" e-mail).

Perhaps if someone explained to them that, compared to the drama of words, Hamlet is a light farce, they might develop a more informed attitude toward philological research and become students of historical linguistics rather than gullible consumers of journalists' pap.

You can sample Word Origins ... and how we know them at Google Books. At first acquaintance, I like the quirky style and iconoclasm, as in Chapter 5 ("in which people take the cause of word origins in hand, or Folk Etymology") or Chapter 11 ("in which history pretends to raise its veil, or Coinages by Known Individuals").
- Ray


  1. I enjoyed the articles and I also like Liberman's blog. However, when I click the Google Book links, it won't show me any text. It says I've exceeded my page limit. I tried clearing my cache but still no go. I also tried finding the book without your link, but that didn't help either. Frustrating.

    Oh well. I should be working, anyway.

    Thanks for an entertaining post.


  2. I don't know if the problem is in something about your location or IP address Google Books doesn't like. You could try going via a proxy browser site.

  3. I figured it out; you have to allow cookies. (My normal browser setting is to not allow them.)

    I'll look forward to reading the book tonight when I have some time.

    Thanks, Ray. (I tried a proxy browser; that wasn't it.)