Beautiful referents call for comparably beautiful words, and most languages oblige us when it comes to Lepidoptera, as Nige knowledgably notes. This followed from a reader in New York City:
“I asked my husband to give me the phonetic spelling of butterfly in Russian: BABOCHKA. The sound is close to BABUSHKA, grandmother. This reminds me of when I was a teenager in the 50s. Headscarves were often called `babushkas’ then, & my father sometimes made a slighting remark when I would go out with a scarf tied over my head. Of course we pronounced it wrong -- it should be BA-bush-ka, not ba-BUSH-ka.”
In Polish, Russian and other Slavic languages, an old woman is a baba. Think of Baba Yaga, the old witch in folktales. Growing up in Cleveland, I also heard stada baba. The baba/babushka connection always made intuitive sense, but a philologist might confirm a babochka/babushka connection. I’m neither entomologist nor etymologist but fancy a linkage: “Butterfly” in common usage signifies the adult insect. No one calls the eggs, larva or pupa “butterfly,” though it’s biologically correct. An old woman is mature, a biological culmination, like her lepidopteral counterpart, and free to fly if she wishes.
This site translates butterfly into hundreds of languages. The Albanian flutura is lovely, as are the Japanese choo, chou chou and chocho. In Polish it’s motyl, reminiscent of the English “motile,” meaning capable of movement, certainly a butterfly trait. Back to babochka: In 1921, while at Cambridge, Nabokov wrote “Babochka (Vanessa antiopa),” translated by Gavriel Shapiro and Dmitri Nabokov as “Butterfly (Vanessa antiopa)” (Nabokov’s Butterflies: Unpublished and Uncollected Writings, 2000):
“Velvety-black, with a warm tint of ripe plum,
here it opened wide; through this live velvet
delightfully gleams a row of cornflower-azure grains,
along a circular fringe, yellow as the rippling rye.
It has perched on a trunk, and its jagged tender wings breathe,
Now pressing themselves to bark, now turning toward the rays…
Oh, how they exult, how divinely they shimmer! One would say:
a blue-eyed night is framed by two pale-yellow dawns.
Greetings, oh greetings, reverie of a northern birch grove!
Thrill, and laughter, and love of my eternal youth.
Yes, I’ll recognize you in a Seraph, at the wondrous meeting,
I’ll recognize your wings, their sacrosanct design.”