'Butterfly Effect' and Chain Reactions

13 July, 2019

Now, Words and Their Stories from VOA Learning English.

I am not going to lie to you: Not all bugs are created equal.

We like some insects and hate others.

For example, if you see a big cockroach run across the floor, you might run for the insecticide spray.

But if you see a brightly colored butterfly landing on a flower outside your window, you probably will not spray it with poison.

So today, we are not going to talk about cockroaches. Let's talk about butterflies instead!

Butterflies are beautiful both in their appearance and movements.

This Monarch butterfly flutters around a sunflower.
This Monarch butterfly flutters around a sunflower.

They flutter. This means they move their wings back and forth very quickly. The word "flutter" even goes very nicely with the word "butterfly." Butterflies flutter by.

Other things can flutter, like a sail on a boat that flutters in the wind. Flutter can also mean to move in an uneven, irregular way. When two people are in love, you can say their hearts are "all a flutter."

This fluttering movement led to the expression "to have butterflies in your stomach." This means you feel nervous. It feels like you have butterflies fluttering around inside you.

To have butteries in your stomach is a common expression, so much so that we often just say we have butterflies. For example, if I am nervous before speaking in public, I can say, "I'm so nervous! I have butterflies!"

Butterflies can also flutter from one place to another. They do not spend too much time on one flower or plant. Some people do this as well. They flutter about, not spending too much time in once place too long ... like a butterfly.

That is where we get the term "social butterfly." We use it to describe a person with a lot of friends and a lot of social engagements, like parties and get-togethers.

These two butterfly expressions are fairly common and you can use them in any situation. But today, we will talk about another butterfly expression, one that is a little more ... philosophical.

We call this the Butterfly Effect.

The butterfly effect is a theory. It claims that one small action can lead to major events. For example, a butterfly fluttering its wings can have a great effect -- like producing a storm -- in another part of the world.

But this expression is not just used by great thinkers, you know, philosophers. Every small decision you make can have a butterfly effect in your own life.

For example, let's say that one night you agree to meet friends at the movies. On they way, you stop to help a man with a broken bicycle. This makes you late and you miss the movie. But the man is thankful. He gives you his card and invites you to lunch.

As it turns out he is a book publisher who offers to look at a book you have just finished writing. Your stopping to help him led to events in your life happening very differently.

Now, you may hear other expressions that mean about the same thing. We also have the ripple effect. If you throw something into a body of still water, it cause ripples in the water, one leading to the next.

Then there is the domino effect. Dominoes is a game where you stack up domino tiles close to each other. You push one which falls into the next, which falls into the next, and so on and so on – until they are all down.

The snowball effect is when something small gets worse and worse over time. Imagine a ball of snow rolling down a hill getting bigger and bigger as it collects more snow.

We usually use "to snowball" only for bad things. We use the others for both good and bad events. And you can use all of these in either formal or informal situations.

One big difference is that we can say something dominoed, or snowballed or even rippled. Although that one is less common. However, we do not say something butterflied. For example, "The man could not have known that his not going into work would domino into a very interesting day."

These expressions are all chain reactions. They all mean that one thing leads to the next, to the next and so on.

And that is the end of this Words and Their Stories.

Until next time ... I'm Anna Matteo.

And I'm Bryan Lynn.

All you gotta do is ... Get in the middle of a chain reaction
You get a medal when you're lost in action

Anna Matteo wrote this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor. The song at the end is Diana Ross singing "Chain Reaction."


Words in This Story

flutter – v. to flap the wings rapidly butterflies fluttering among the flowers : to move with quick wavering or flapping motions a sail fluttering in the wind : to vibrate in irregular spasms his heart fluttered : to move about or behave in an agitated aimless manner She nervously fluttered around the office.

philosophical – adj. of or relating to the study of basic ideas about knowledge, right and wrong, reasoning, and the value of thing

ripple – n. the ruffling of the surface of water : a small wave a usually slight noticeable effect or reaction