Italian Word of the Day: Sfarfallare (to flit / to flutter)

The verb sfarfallare is the fusion of the prefix s-, the noun farfalla (butterfly) and the verb ending -are. There are more meanings associated with this word than you might think, so let’s take a look at them now!


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cover image with the word sfarfallare and its translation written on a notepad next to a cup of cofee

Let’s begin with the most literal definition, which is to emerge from a pupal case or cocoon. Although it can be used for any insect including butterflies and moths, it most often refers to the emergence of the domestic silk moth.

Next up is the figurative definition: to flit about or to flutter. In the same way a butterfly flits from one flower to another to collect pollen, you can use this verb to describe:

a) something that flies about in the same manner as a butterfly

Gli aquiloni colorati sfarfallano nel cielo azzurro.

The colourful kites flutter about in the blue sky.

kite flying in blue sky

b) an inconsistent and fickle person who continuously changes partners, houses, jobs, opinions and so on. Used in this sense, it is often accompanied by the prepositions da (from) and a (to) as in the following example.

Quel farfallone continua a sfarfallare da una ragazza all’altra.

That playboy keeps flitting from one girl to another.

Although uncommon, Italians also use this verb in a colloquial way to describe the act of making obvious and unacceptable grammatical errors when speaking or writing. A similar expression that means the same thing is dire / fare degli sfarfalloni (lit: to say / do big flutters).

When talking about florescent lamps, screens and the like, you can use sfarfallare as a synonym for tremolare (to flicker).

Perché lo schermo della TV sfarfalla così? Spero che non sia guasto.

Why is the TV screen flickering like that? I hope it’s not broken.

Rows of prayer candles glow brightly in a cathedral
Le candele sfarfallano con il movimento dell’aria. = The candles flicker with the movement of the wind.

In mechanics, it can refer to a motor that vibrates irregularly.

Two terms that derive from sfarfallare are:

  • sfarfallio (noun) = flickering, fluttering
  • sfarfallamento (noun) = flicker, the emergence of an insect

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