Translations of Butterfly (Linguistic Differences)

24 Feb 2012

Via John Biesnecker:

Linguistic Differences (butterfly)

Sorry, I can’t credit the original author because I don’t know it. I added the Chinese translation into the mix (蝴蝶).

This is especially hilarious to me personally because I know very little German, but I actually learned the German word “schmetterling” long ago by chance, and found the word enormously amusing. Guess I’m not the only one!


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Graham Bond Says: February 24, 2012 at 5:52 pm

    I’m not entirely sure I get the joke here. Is this a comment on the inherent ugliness of the word ‘schmetterling’, or does the word have some specific historic reference which I’m not getting? If it’s the former, it’s probably worth considering the word ‘butterfly’ which, I’d argue, feels like a pleasing formulation entirely on the basis of the real-world object it references. If you consider the two English word which form its constituent parts, it suddenly becomes pretty ugly too – butter, blobs of yellowy grease, and fly, an irritating flying insect which eats dog faeces (amongst other forms of excrement).

  2. No worries… I find this hilarious, too, and I am German :-p

  3. I am British but brushing up my Chinese in Germany and love your blog. I feel I must butt in here.
    Schmetterling is related in meaning to butterfly. Schmetten is an old word meaning cream (the variant Schmand is better known today). According to Kluge’s etymological dictionary, there are also dialect terms referring to butterflies as Milchdieb (milk thief). Here’s an article on the etymology in various languages which I just found – it also refers to Czech smetana:

  4. Being German, I find “Schmetterling” as pleasant as “butterfly”, whereas “farfalla” sounds like food to me …

  5. Butterfly is Babochka in Russian, sounds like babushka. Hehehe

  6. What happened to John’s Chinese blog? I liked it.

    • Hehe… I sort of abandoned it when I had to start writing a bunch of papers for grad school in Chinese, and it wasn’t fun anymore! My Chinese “grew up” and I stopped using it to “play.”

      Not good, I know. It’s still there; I just haven’t written anything new in a while. But I still plan to! (More details here.)

  7. Lee Hofweber Says: March 13, 2012 at 9:34 am

    Although the word “Schmetterling” is long, I think it sounds really pleasant. It’s probably the “ling” at the end.

  8. Why does “butterfly” get a US flag. We were using it in England 1,700 years before the US even existed.


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