Friday’s French – Minute papillon

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As we were driving through Paris recently in the rain, we saw a café called “Minute Papillon” which made me wonder about the origin of the expression which is roughly equivalent to our English saying “Hold your horses!”.


Some sources suggest it is simply a metaphor about butterflies which flit from flower to flower, which would also explain the verb papillonner which means to chop and change or flit from one thing to another.

Other sources also believe the expression came into use in the early 20th century but with a much more amusing origin. At the time, there was a café in Paris that was very popular with journalists. There was a waiter called Papillon who used to answer “Minute, j’arrive” when too many people were calling on his services at the same time.

So when customers wanted to tell him he could take his time, they would say, “Minute Papillon!” It seems the journalists spread the story.

Minute papillon has a second meaning which is an extension of the first i.e. I don’t agree, meaning that the other person has to stop talking so that they can place their argument.

Papillon by itself has several interesting meanings. It can apply to someone who is fickle. It also means a sticker and, by extension, a parking ticket on the windscreen (although I have never seen them in the form of a sticker).

Papillon is also used to designate a butterfly nut and butterfly stroke in swimming.

A noeud papillon is our bow tie. I much prefer the French expression.

However, you can’t have papillons in your tummy when you’re nervous the way you do in English. You have “le trac” instead.

And, by the way, there is no separate word for moth in French – it’s a papillon de nuit!

Do you have any other expression that revolve around butterflies and papillons?


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10 thoughts on “Friday’s French – Minute papillon”

  1. The Butterfly Effect, which I’m sure will have been adopted by French as l’effet papillon. There is also to be a ‘social butterfly’ in English. I don’t know what that would be in French, but the use of butterfly is so apt that I bet the French uses it too.

    The French are perfectly correct in their use of papillon for all lepidoptera. There is no good scientific distinction between butterflies and moths, it is just a vernacular convention to refer to night flying leps with feathery antennae as moths and day flying leps with clubbed antennae as butterflies. However there are lots of exceptions, with many day flying moths.

    1. Yes, in French, they say effet papillon as well. A papillon, however, is someone who is fickle rather than what we call a social butterfly.
      Thank you for your explanation about moths and butterflies. Very enlightening.

    1. I didn’t know that expression but I can imagine exactly what it means. Next time I go to the butcher I’ll ask him how to say it in French.

  2. Thanks Rosemary for taking the time to put these bits and pieces of French language culture together. Yes, language culture, because it is more than learning French. The way you write the articles makes it interesting even for those who are proficient, but just keep digging for the precise meaning of words.
    Oh, by the way, I was initally looking for the difference between arbuste and buisson… :)) So, I jumped from the cock to the donkey, didn’t I? 😉

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed the article. I find them fun to write. I just wish I had more time. And yes, you did jump from cock to donkey!

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