The Grammarphobia Blog

A swallowtail by any other name

Q: I’ve read that the large-winged insect we see every summer was originally called a “flutterby,” but a tongue-tied VIP in England could only say “butterfly” and that name caught on. This makes sense to me since butterflies do more fluttering than buttering. Do you agree?

A: I’m sorry to disappoint you, but “butterfly” is as old as English words come. It goes back to about the year 700 when ancient Britons were speaking Old English, according to The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology.

The Oxford English Dictionary‘s first citation is from about 1000. The word (then rendered as buttorfleoge) appeared in the writings of the Anglo-Saxon abbot and sage Aelfric. He identified it as the insect papilio (its Latin name).

The word “butterfly,” according to the OED, has been in use steadily ever since. It can be found in the works of major English writers through the ages: Chaucer, Shakespeare, and so on.

No one is sure how the English name came about, but the OED says it’s similar to words for the insect in Dutch (botervlieg) and German (butterfliege), both of which have the same literal components, “butter” plus “fly.” (More common words for “butterfly” in modern German are schmetterling and falter, according to Cassell’s German and English Dictionary.)

It was once believed, John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins tells us, that the insects liked to land on bowls of butter or milk that were left uncovered. In fact, an alternative German name for “butterfly” is milchdieb (“milk thief”).

Another theory is that the name might come from the insect’s supposed butter-colored excrement. The OED notes that a Dutch synonym for “butterfly” is boterschijte (the Dutch word for excrement is schijt).

But butterflies don’t have excrement, according to A World for Butterflies. The Language Hat website, which cites the butterfly book, notes, though, that caterpillars do poop and at least one of them has yellow excrement.

A third theory – the one that makes the most sense to me – is that the name may simply be a reference to the creamy yellow (or butter) color of some common butterflies like sulfurs.

As for “flutterby,” there’s a lot of etymological nonsense about it on the Internet, but I can’t find a single published reference for the word in the OED.

The closest thing is this citation from 2000 in the dictionary’s entry for “pillock,” an obscure North English term for penis: “Why did the butterfly flutter by? Because she saw the caterpillar wave his pillock at her.”

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