The Grammarphobia Blog

Aurelians or lepidopterists?

Q: I’m writing an article about a European lepidopterist, and I’ve discovered that a butterfly collector in Europe is sometimes called an aurelian. I’ve found several tangential connections to a Roman emperor, but nothing solid. Can you help me explain the usage to my readers?

A:Yes, “aurelian” is a rare old term for “lepidopterist.” It’s still alive, though barely. We’ve checked six standard dictionaries and only one includes the usage. Merriam-Webster Unabridged defines it as “a collector and breeder of moths and butterflies.”

The noun isn’t related to Aurelian, the third-century Roman emperor whose Latin name was Lucius Domitius Aurelianus Augustus. It’s derived from “aurelia,” the chrysalis or pupa of an insect. The chrysalis, as you know, is the hardened outer covering of the pupa, an insect in the immature, non-feeding stage between larva and adult.

The words “aurelia” and “chrysalis” are ultimately derived from the Latin and Greek terms for gold, aurum and χρῡσός (chrisos).

The Latin chrȳsallis comes from the Greek χρυσαλλίς (chrysalis), meaning “the gold-coloured sheath of butterflies,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Although some butterfly chrysalises are gold in color, others are black, brown, green, pink, purple, and so on.

The first of these terms to show up in English was “aurelia,” which the OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, defines as “the chrysalis or pupa of an insect, esp. of a butterfly. (Now scarcely in use, chrysalis being the ordinary term.)”

The earliest example in the dictionary for “aurelia” (as the plural “aureliaes”) is from a 1608 treatise on zoology by the English clergyman and writer Edward Topsell: “All Catterpillers are not conuerted into Aureliaes.”

The term “chrysalis” (in the plural “chrysallides”) appeared in 1658 in an expanded version of Topsell’s treatise that was revised posthumously: “Transmutations … of Catterpillers … into Chrysallides (that shine as if leaves of gold were laid upon them).”

As for the people who study butterflies, moths, and other insects, the terms “entomologist” and “aurelian” appeared in writing in the late 18th century and “lepidopterist” in the 19th century.

The first OED citation for “entomologist” is from an April 18, 1771, report in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London: “The entomologists have ranked the bivalve insects under the genus of the monoculi.” (The italics here are in the original, though not in the Oxford citation.)

The earliest example we’ve seen for the noun “aurelian” is in the title and text of a 1766 book by the English entomologist Moses Harris: The Aurelian: or, Natural History of English Insects; Namely, Moths and Butterflies. The subtitle says the book uses the “standard names, as given and established by the worthy and ingenious Society of Aurelians.” (The OED cites a 1778 edition of the book.)

In his preface, Harris notes that the Society of Aurelians used to meet in the 1740s at the Swan Tavern in London, but disbanded after March 27, 1748, when a fire destroyed the tavern along with the society’s specimens, illustrations, and library. Harris formed a new Aurelian Society in 1762, one of several short-lived societies with that name. We haven’t found any earlier written mention of the first society.

”Lepidopterist,” the latecomer entomologically as well as etymologically, appeared in the early 19th century. The OED’s earliest example, which we’ve expanded, is from An Introduction to Entomology; or, Elements of the Natural History of Insects (1826), by William Kirby and William Spence:

“If a Lepidopterist goes into the wood to capture moths in the day-time, he finds them often perched on the lichens that cover the north side of the trunk of a tree, with their wings and antennae folded.”

Oxford says the term comes from Lepidoptera, modern Latin for a “large order of insects, characterized by having four membranous wings covered with scales; it comprises the butterflies and moths.”

Interestingly, this modern Latin term is derived from the old Greek words λεπίς (lepis, scale) and πτερόν (pteron, wing). A modern Latin word made of two old Greek terms? Well, as Oscar Wilde put it, “Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.”

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