July 19, 2004

Worrisome Canker Pig

Today I give you Agrius Narcissus, an insect held by many experts to be the most beautiful of its kind now living. I’m not sure I agree, but its carmine banding is a splendour to behold. The specimen I received for the purposes of this lecture was still alive on delivery, but a few hours in an airtight jar saw to that.

Narcissus, as you likely know, was the son of Endymion, the man who wisely chose to sleep forever, and Selene, A.K.A. the moon. Strange parentage indeed, and it’s little wonder he grew up with such strange preoccupations. There is another school of thought that holds that his true parents were Cephisus and Liriope, about whom very little is known.

Hadst thou Narcissus in thy face, to me / Thou wouldst appear most ugly

Since beauty is of the essence of today’s featured butterfly, I thought we should look at the word butterfly in other languages, to consider which tongue best caresses this extraordinary insect.

The Dutch rather curiously give us vlinder – not a very promising start, but nobody expected great things from this language. A more obvious place to look for comely words is surely French, where we find that papillon is their word. Not bad, not bad at all. But we wouldn’t want the French to win, now, would we? Despite my feelings towards the language I must admit a fondness for German’s Schmetterling. The specimen trapped in an old Branston pickle jar in my study was certainly schmetterling like crazy for a while this afternoon. Now she’s well and truely Schmettered.

From Italy we have farfalla, which tastes especially nice in a buttery sauce with crushed chilli and garlic. The double f lends the word a fluttery air that suits our winged subject, but Schmetterling is still my favourite thus far.

In Hungarian we have pillangó (pronounce both ls or suffer incomprehension). Better still we have ejszaki pillangó, meaning naughty lady of the night (or literally, night butterfly). See how she flits from flower to flower?

No, that just won’t do. The German word remains most appropriate. We must send out word to other languages. We need reinforcements!

A robust borboleta answers the call from Portugal. Too fat, I say, more a beetle word, or a worrisome canker pig uprooting shrubs. No, no, no. Mariposa? The Spanish make a bold retort, but the Schmetterlings still have it. The Swedes have the nicest word on the page, for they give us fjäril, but I can hardly make a victor of a word I couldn’t dream of pronouncing.

And so it falls to the Poles to see off the bedevilled Schmetterlings. You can trust the Slavs to carve a fine word from the granite of their vocabulary. The most beautiful word for butterfly in the entire world (with the exception of all those presently not considered):


Ah. A joy to articulate. It might look difficult, but if you make the effort, I think it is a word to savour. The rz combination is pronounced much like the s in measure. Once you have surmounted the hurdle presented by prz the rest trips out as follows: ep-ust-neat-sa.

Say it again.


Ah, Narcissus. Oh, Agrius. Ladies and Gentlemen, I think I need to go and lie down. If you have any suggestions from languages that didn’t make contention, please leave them in my pigeonhole. I’m afraid I’m not in the mood for questions.


Doctor Pockless

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