August 7, 2008

Etymologist 15: Ghosts and butterflies

I found another connection that is shared between multiple Southeast Asian languages: use of a word for 'spirit' or 'ghost' in the word for 'butterfly'.

In Thai the word for 'butterfly' is ผีเสื้อ /phǐi sɨ̂a/. The first syllable is the common Thai word for 'ghost'. The second word is the word for 'shirt', but I suspect that may be a coincidence, and the เสื้อ in ผีเสื้อ doesn't actually have to do with shirts. But I don't know for sure one way or the other.

In Mon, the word is /kəlok həlɛ̀a/, where /kəlok/ means 'Spirit, daemon', and /həlɛ̀a/ means 'Indian' (i.e. a native of India), from the Burmese ကုလား  /kəlá/ (comparable in meaning to Thai แขก, although probably cognate with Thai กุลา). [Data from Harry Shorto's 1962 A Dictionary of Modern Spoken Mon.]

In Burmese, the word for 'butterfly' is လိပ်ပြာ /leiʔ pyà/. This is also the word for spirit (corresponding in meaning to Thai วิญญาณ 'spirit', not ผี 'ghost', but the ideas are connected). [Data from SEAlang. You can download Burmese fonts at that link.]

So again we see a case where although the words are completely different, a very similar semantic concept appears in these neighboring cultures. I checked in Khmer and a few other dictionaries, and I didn't notice this in any other Southeast Asian languages.

It's an interesting question to ponder: why the connection between butterflies and supernatural spirits? Any thoughts?


  1. Interesting. I wonder if the butterfly featured in "Where the Miracle Happens" is symbolic then?

  2. I think I found a partial explanation in the German article "Der Molkendieb Maria" at, but in relation to German (+/- the English butterfly) and Spanish. The conclusion is:

    "Thus in German (+/+ English) bitch, in Spanish (the Holly mother of the Lord) Maria of Jesus Christus - sometimes things happens in that way."

    I'm not aware about the etymology of the English term butterfly, but the similarity with the German term (in sharp contrast to the Spanish term mariposa (Maria posa te!)) Schmetterling is so obvious ... and at the end the story - at least - behind (meaning of) the Spanish and the German term appears, according to the German blog, the same.

    German Schmetterling and english butter? Butter (engl.) translates into Butter, die (ger.). Thus, butterfly = Butterfliege? The term doesn't exist in German but a popular belief is that flying ditches (but of course not the maidservant caring for the milk while producing butter :-)) are stealing always something from the Milch (milk), Molke (whey), or Sahne (cream). The letter term is finally the clue to the German term Schetterling:

    Schmẹt|ten, der; -s [tschech. smetana] (ostmd.): Sahne.

    ostmd. = east Middle High German
    tschech. = Czech

    Thus, butterfly = the bitch (ผี) snaffeling butter/cream/whey/milk??

    I do not know the etymologies of butterfly, but if it similar to the etymology of the German term Schmetterling, why then an etymologist on 'Ghosts and butterflies' as regards Thai but not English language?

  3. P.S.; I missed the following:

    The most interesting of the three terms mariposa, butterfly and Schmetterling is actually theier difference as regards their "coining" in relation to the Latin papilio.

    Another term, where I was surprised to hear the very first time in my life was the English term DRAGON FLY, where an independent English word coining process is obvious: Lat.: libellula (given name by Carl von Linné), fr. libellule, it. libellula, ger. Libelle, die etc. etc.

    Thus, the difference between a flying dragon and a flying witch/hag etc. (sorry for the typo bitch/witch in my preceding) steeling butter (???) is that major?

  4. Trying to find out by myself etymology of the English term butterfy, I found some hints that it is seen in that way described with my dismal English in the preceding posts:

    "Webster's Third New International Dictionary says perhaps the word comes from the notion that butterflies, or witches in that form, stole milk and butter (see German "Schmetterling" below)."

  5. Have you ever gone camping in the jungle and hung up a shirt on clothesline or tree branch?

    After nightfall, you'll notice that moths and other pi suea-like insects have gathered en masse in the night -- clinging to the fabric and, I suppose, nibbling it.

    This is my pneumonic device for pi suea. Butterflies are kind of ephemeral creatures and they -- or at least their moth cousins -- eat clothes. (Not suggesting this is part of the etymology, by the way -- I have no clue.)