The other day G was dancing around singing the word butterfly to herself. After a little while, true to family genes, she asked me why it was called butterfly. "What does the butter part mean?" she asked. I hied me hence to Walter Skeat's Concise Dictionary of English Etymology. This is what I found.

butterfly (E.) A.S. buttor-fleorge, lit. butter-fly. So called from its excrement resembling butter, as shewn by the O. Du. boter-schijte, a butterfly, lit. butter-voider.

I was dumbfounded. In my wildest dreams, I never imagined that the butterfly was so called because of its scatological contributions. I never conceived that it would be named after anything other than its amazing beauty and lyrical flight. Even a nod to it's transformation from caterpillar to chrysalis to adult would be in order, one would assume.
Wingedfairy, Flower-sipper, Jewelwing, and that's just off the top of my head. Anything, actually, other than The Buttercrapper. How did this happen? Not to malign the Scandinavians, but this scene is all I can picture-done, of course with Basil Fawlty's accent from Fawlty Tower's hilarious episode, 'The Germans'-

"Hans Fritz, did you see zaat insect flying in ze air?"
"You mean ze little red one with ze black spots?"
"No, no-the one whose excrement looks like butter."
"O ya, ya. Now I know who you mean-ze little boter-schijte!"

The Divine "Doah!"
I can almost picture God in heaven doing a Homer Simpson impersonation, smacking His forehead with open Palm. Somehow it seems like we fell just a little short of our Adamic calling as Steward & Official Namer on that one...at least our language did......
So many other Indo-European languages have managed to capture the lilting & fluttering quality of the butterfly without once alluding to the color of its...leavings.
Here are some of my favorites:

flutura (Albanian)
papilio/onis (Latin) As in ancient Greek, the soul of a dead person is associated with a butterfly. The word 'pavilion' comes from this word as well, a tent or canopy referring to the spreading out of wings.
petaloudia (modern Greek) relating to the words 'petal', 'leaf', 'spreading out.'
mariposa (Spanish) from the expression 'Mari, alight!' Which apparently is present in children's songs and games. It might be from "Santa Maria, posa" Which translates, "The Virgin Mary alights" I suppose Mary had to sit down sometime, after chasing toddler Jesus around all day.

But see how great etymology is? It's all stories, and sends my narrative-driven mind off on a thousand rabbit-trails. An English etymology dictionary is far more inveigling than any internet search engine; and I don't come away from it stiff-backed & feeling like hours of my life have been irrevocably sapped.
Okay, Okay.....
I should add that the more research I did, the more I discovered various sources pooh-poohing (sorry) the butter-excrement theory. I found other explanations like that butterflies and butter-churning are both harbingers of spring, that many butterflies have wings the color of butter, or that the name derives from the old stories about fairies and witches stealing butter or milk at night in the form of butterflies. But I still think all these name definitions are pretty insipid, and miss the point entirely. Where do I write a letter of protest?

(And many thanks to pdphoto.org for the exceptional and-might I add-officially free butterfly photo, and thanks as well to Mr. Matthew Rabuzzi, armchair etymologist from Cupertino, CA for his outstanding article on the butterfly in Indo-European languages. Very comprehensive and well-written, and that's hard to find in internet articles these days.....)


Anonymous said...

However, in Modern Greek a butterfly is "petalouda" (note the spelling).
The same word in classical Greek is "psyche" =soul. Which is exactly what you say.

Dietrich Bonhoffer is one of my favourite writers and counsellor in the faith.


Georgios (Cyprus)

rosa said...

Thank you, Georgios!

Read Your Way Through the Garden: Choice Tomes From Garden Literature

  • A Book of Salvias by Betsy Clebsch
  • Botany for Gardeners by Brian Capon
  • Making Bentwood Trellises by Jim Long
  • RHS Encyclopedia of Plants & Flowers
  • Rose Primer: An Organic Approach to Rose Selection & Care by Orin Martin
  • Start With the Soil by Grace Gershuny
  • Sunset Western Garden Book
  • Sunset Western Landscaping Book
  • The Book of Garden Secrets by Patent & Bilderback
  • The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Botany
  • the Gardener's Table: A Guide to Natural Vegetable Growing and Cooking by Richard Merrill & Joe Ortiz
  • The Gardener's Year by Karel Capek
  • The Hutchinson Dictionary of Plant Names: Common & Botanical
  • We Made A Garden by Margaret Fish

lotsa latin: rosa's botanical & etymological ruminations

  • vespertinus: flowers in the evening
  • vernalis:spring
  • veni vidi nates calcalvi: we came, we saw, we kicked butt. This was printed on a T shirt I bought at Abbot's Thrift many years ago. It encircled the NEA symbol. I wish I knew why.
  • superciliaris: shaped like an eyebrow ex: sturnella superciliaris, the White-browed Blackbird
  • rosa-sinensis: species of Hibiscus: Hibiscus rosa-sinensis. Lit. Rosa of China, so named by British plant hunters.
  • placentiformis: shaped like a cake ex: discocactus placentiformis
  • nudiflorus: flowers before leaves show ex: flowering quince, magnolia
  • nivalis: growing in or near snow ex: galanthus nivalis (common snowdrop)
  • muralis: growing on walls
  • mirabilis: marvellous, wonderful
  • formosa: beautiful ex: dicentra formosa, a.k.a.western bleeding heart/dutchman's breeches/lady in a bath
  • carpe vitam: get a life
  • Carolus Linnaeus: Latinized name of Carl von Linne (1707-1778), Swedish naturalist considered the father of plant taxonomy. Whatta guy.