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: We’re sorry to disappoint you, but “butterfly” is as old as English words come. In written use it goes back to about the year 700, when Anglo-Saxons were speaking Old English.
The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from The Epinal Glossary, a list of terms in Latin and Old English: “Papilo, buturfliogae” (butur- was the compound form of buter or buture, Old English for “butter,” while fleoge and flyge were terms for a winged insect).
The OED says the reason for the name is unclear, but it “may arise from the pale yellow appearance of the wings of certain European butterflies (perhaps specifically the brimstone butterfly), or from a supposed tendency to feed on or hover over butter or buttermilk, or from a folk belief that butterflies (or even witches in the form of butterflies) steal butter.”
The dictionary notes similar words in other Germanic languages. A popular name for the insect in 16th-century Dutch, for example, was botervlieg, while popular names in Middle High German were bitterflivge and brutflevg. The insect is normally called vlinder in Dutch and schmetterling in German.
The OED also cites several Dutch and German regional terms that reflect the folk belief in butterfly thievery and witchery: botterheks (“butter witch”) in Dutch as well as butterhexe (“butter witch”) and “milchdieb (“milk thief”) in German.
The dictionary notes the use in Dutch of “boterschijte, lit. ‘butter shit,’ which has led to the (improbable) suggestion that the insect was so called on account of the (supposed) appearance of its excrement.”
In fact, butterflies don’t produce excrement, according to A World for Butterflies. However, the website and book by Phil Schappert note that caterpillars do poop and at least one of them has yellow excrement.
The word “butterfly,” according to the OED, has been in use steadily in various spellings since it first appeared in Old English. It can be found in the works of major English writers through the ages: Chaucer, Shakespeare, and so on.
The earliest Oxford citation with the modern spelling is from the early 17th century: “As Butterflies quicken with heat, which were benummed with cold” (from Francis Bacon’s Sylva Sylvarum: Or a Naturall Historie, 1626).
As for “flutterby,” there’s a lot of etymological nonsense about it on the Internet, but we 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.”