Word of the Day / Parpar: Making Up a Word for a Gorgeous Bug

The Hebrew word for butterfly originally related more to birds - until the lovely insect set a poet's heart aflutter.


The Hebrew word for the day-flying insect of the order Lepidoptera, known in English as a butterfly, is "parpar" (par-PAR).

This is another one of the slew of words the Ben-Yehuda family coined in the early 20th century.

At the time, Hebrew writers used the word "tziporet" (from the word for bird) or "tziporet kramim" (tzi-po-RET kra-MIM, meaning vineyard bird) for butterfly. Tziporet appears in the Mishna, but there it means generic "flying insect" -- most likely the original reference was to the locust. But since Hebrew had other words for locust ("arbeh"), and none for butterfly, it was appropriated for that use.

An early example for use of "tziporet kramim" to describe a butterfly can be found in a text written by Elchanan Levinski in Hamelitz in 1895. “The farmers’ joy had ceased too, the butterfly collected its wings, and the bee that had just flew from flower to flower collecting nectar stopped flying...”

Israel's national poet Haim Nahman Bialik also used the old Talmudic word in a love poem he wrote in 1904 titled “Tziporet."

But did you feel the butterfly in me
Did you feel that my heart too is caged
And fluttering and bound, and hoping for salvation
And in the fringes of your coat is caught?”

The word fluttering in this poem is telling. What do butterflies do if not flutter? It might be this poem that gave Eliezer, or his son Itamar Ben-Yehuda, the idea to use the Hebrew word for flutter, "pirper" (pir-PER), to come up with a new name for butterfly.

They chose the word based on this verb -- and on the name of a Biblical river: “Are not Abana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel?” (2 Kings 5:12)

It had the additional appeal of sounding (a little…) like the French word for butterfly, papillon.

The word parpar itself first appears in a poem written by Ben-Yehuda the younger in 1910 titled “Parpar.”

Persuaded of its merit, Bialik himself used parpar in one of the most famous lines of poetry he wrote. “Perhaps as a butterfly around the flame dancing and twirling my soul will leave...” ("God Hadn’t Shown Me," 1911).

Bialik’s stamp of approval did the trick and thus Hebrew had itself a new word for these most beautiful insects.

Shoshana Kordova is on leave. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day.

Alex Oz