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Butterfly:

So why is a butterfly called a butterfly? I was wondering, so I looked it up. The OED reports that the origin is unknown, but notes that Hensleigh Wedgwood's mid-1800s A Dictionary of English Etymology linked it to the old Dutch boterschijte, which apparently referred to the color of the insect's excrement. The Online Etymology Dictionary notes this theory as well, though also reports two other possibilities -- "the old notion that the insects (or witches disguised as butterflies) consume butter or milk that is left uncovered" and "less creatively, simply [that] the pale yellow color of many species' wings suggests the color of butter."

All I can say is that if boterschijte is the source, I'm glad the word has evolved since then.

loki13 (mail):
I prefer that to its less spectacular cousin, the margarinefly.
10.26.2008 7:21pm
Arkady:
The post reminded me, sadly, of this story.
10.26.2008 7:43pm
Dr. Weevil (mail) (www):
There are worse possible derivations, including what appears to be the true one: If you read (and who doesn't?) R. B. Onians, The Origins of European Thought about the Body, the Mind, the Soul, the World, Time, and Fate (Cambridge, 1951), you will learn more than you probably want to know about how the ancient Greeks thought brain matter, spinal fluid, marrow, and semen were essentially the same thing, the very stuff of life, the fluid that makes the difference between a dried-up corpse and a moist live human. Add M. Davies and J. Kathirithamby, The Greek Insects (Oxford, 1986), pp. 104-7, and you will find that the butterfly was called psyche, 'soul', because it was thought to be or somehow represent the soul of a dead human. The illustrations on pp. 104-5 of the latter book depict ejaculating phalli (one of a herm, the other of a flute-player) with butterflies floating above the stream. As D and K note (106), "The juxtaposition of semen and butterfly may also remind us that some modern European names for this insect similarly connect it with liquid vel sim. that possesses nutritive power (English butter-fly, German Molkendieb (whey-thief) etc.)." Their footnote on that sentence refers to a couple of obscure German sources not available to me, "Immisch, Glotta 6 (1915) 197, R. Riegler ap. Bächtold-Stäubli, Handwörterbuch des deutschen Aberglaubens 7.1246", and adds "English etymology seems baffled by butterfly (OED and Onions, Dictionary of English Etymology can only suggest a derivation from the appearance of the creature's excrement in view of the Dutch synonym Boterschijte, though the latter cites the German terms mentioned above). In one of William Blake's illustrations to his Songs of Innocence and Experience we see 'The organ of generation . . . with the generative principle breaking from its crest in the form of tiny winged . . . figures' (G. Keynes in his edition (Oxford 1970) on pl. 11)."

In short, 'butterfly' is a euphemism for 'semenfly'. (Note: C. T. Onions the erroneous lexicographer is not the same person as R. B. Onians the palaeoanthropologist.)

Finally, Nabokov thought 'butterfly' might be a metathesis of 'flutter-by'. I think he would have been delighted by the actual rather obscene source.

Sorry you asked?
10.26.2008 8:00pm
Brian Mac:

All I can say is that if boterschijte is the source, I'm glad the word has evolved since then.

Thanks - I genuinely lolled, as the kids say.
10.26.2008 8:11pm
Guest User:
I'd rather think it's a flutterby that got spoonerized
10.26.2008 8:31pm
Ed. (mail) (www):
10.26.2008 8:37pm
smitty1e:
@Ed
She's got vast tracts of...explanations...
10.26.2008 8:46pm
Mikey:

HotForWords has the best explanation I've seen.


I didn't learn a damn thing from that.

Not that it wasn't worth every bit of five minutes...
10.26.2008 8:48pm
Fub:
Heh. Reminds me of an old story.

A Spaniard, a Frenchman and a German were debating about the most elegant and beautiful word in any language. The Spaniard offered "mariposa", as a beautiful word for a beautiful creature. The Frenchman immediately challenged with "papillon", which he claimed was even more elegant, with only three syllables that rolled off the tongue more gracefully.

Finally, the German chimed in, "So? What's wrong with schmetterling?"

I heard it from a Dane.
10.26.2008 8:53pm
martinned (mail) (www):
L.S.,

I'd wondered about this one myself. (The English word that is.) In Dutch, btw, the word is "vlinder", so that's no help. All I can contribute from knowing Dutch is that schijt = sh*t = exactly what you think it means.
10.26.2008 9:06pm
Hoosier:
Dr. Weevil: I suspect that the name was something else until Nabokov somehow tricked us all into thinking that "butterfly" was what the objects of his obsession were called.

Call me crazy. But after reading "The Vane Sisters," I wouldn't put anything beyond his powers.
10.26.2008 9:13pm
Hoosier:
I heard it from a Dane.

Famous for their euphonious vocabulary.
10.26.2008 9:22pm
Obvious (mail):
Dr. Weevil,

My ex-wife assured me that, for me, semen and brain matter WERE the same thing...
10.26.2008 9:26pm
Dr. Weevil (mail) (www):
I was just going to make myself some buttered toast, but somehow it doesn't seem so tasty after the research that led to comment #3.
10.26.2008 9:54pm
Norman Bates (mail):
A couple of years ago I noticed how dis-similar are the words for butterfly in the European languages that I know (Schmetterling, papillon, farfala). I developed a provisional hypothesis that the words for things that are more peripheral to the central aspects of adult culture and to the grammastical core of a language may be less "policed" by adults and may be created or evolve more rapidly than words in the central core of the language. I'd appreciate any other examples or comments from the linguists out there?
10.26.2008 10:23pm
PeterWimsey (mail):
My generic (but large) Webster's says that it comes from Anglo-Saxon buttorfleoge, which would tend to rule out the Dutch hypothesis.
10.26.2008 10:42pm
Dr. Weevil (mail) (www):
NB:
Davies and Kathithamby have a hypothesis for that, too (pp. 100-101), not that butterflies are peripheral but that they are uncanny: as they put it, "Otto Keller" (in the standard work on ancient animals) "notes its total absence from Homer, Lyric, Drama, Aesop's Fables and the Greek Anthology, and D'Arcy W. Thompson . . . observes that 'allusions to the butterfly are scanty and rare' in Greek literature (especially poetry) and appends the explanation 'I think the Greeks found something ominous or uncanny, something not to be lightly spoken of, in that all but disembodied spirit which we call butterfly, and they called by the name of psychê, the Soul'." D&K add that visual artists had no objection to depicting butterflies, often as symbolic souls, so it was apparently a purely verbal taboo.

Similarly, I've read somewhere that the bear has a lot of etymologically unrelated names in Indo-European languages because it was considered sacred/uncanny and was therefore referred to euphemistically by various circumlocutions (e.g. 'the brown one').

By the way, in comment 3 I should have said "how the ancient Indo-Europeans thought" not "the ancient Greeks".
10.26.2008 10:46pm
Dr. Weevil (mail) (www):
One more bit from Davies and Kathithamby (101 n 57): a scholar named Gossen alleged "that to do full justice to the butterfly one requires a teutonic temperament ('germanisches Gemüt')". Being German himself, "he would say that, wouldn't he?" (to quote the immortal Mandy Rice-Davies).
10.26.2008 10:50pm
Hoosier:
EV-- The Etymological Dictionary link to "bugbios" connects the theory that you mentioned regarding milk and cream to a German (Saxon) dialectal word for "cream." The word was "Schmetten," (from Czech "smetana," like the composer of "Ma Vlast"), and thus the root for "Schmetterling."

I suspect the best guess at the present is not the scatalogical etymology, fun as that is to contemplate. Since German took the name from its dairy root, a parallel development in English seems a good possibility. Nicht wahr?

Besides, is there another example, in English, of an entire class of animals being named for a characteristic of it's feces? Doesn't seem to be the way the language has operated.
10.26.2008 11:05pm
Hoosier:
"its feces"
10.26.2008 11:07pm
Chris Newman (mail):
FWIW, I was recently listening to The Learning Company's History of the English Language, and the lecturer there gives the metathesis-of-"flutterby" explanation.
10.26.2008 11:33pm
Chris Newman (mail):
Sorry, make that "The Teaching Company". This is the series.
10.26.2008 11:35pm
Harmon Dow (mail):
When my kids were younger, we used to make up "short poems."

One was:

Butterfly
Flutterby

Out of the mouths of babes, perhaps?
10.26.2008 11:50pm
Assistant Village Idiot (mail) (www):
While it is attractive to think of butterfly as a metathesis of flutterby (especially at the Romanian is "fluturi"), that is ruled out by the existence of an Anglo-Saxon/Old English word for the creature based on "butter," from the 11thC. The guess about excrement is wrong, as butterflies don't sh*t, though caterpillars do. Of the explanations why it would be associated with butter - souls of witches stealing the cream, attractions of insects to dairy products, the whitish-yellow color of the most common Western European butterfly, all are possible, none stands out above the others. I suspect the latter as most obvious.

As to Norman Bates' question, it is the inverse of the claim by the "lumpers" in linguistics, especially Merritt Ruhlen, that certain core words have enormous stability. (tik/dec for one or finger, akw for water, etc.) Certainly the names of body parts and the lowest numbers are most stable within language families. Intriguingly for this discussion, the blend fl occurs more often than expected in relation to movement - in English fly, flow, flutter, flee. The splitters among the linguists would dismiss this as coincidence.

So the wide variation among names for butterflies in various languages makes Bates' suggestion possible, though well below plausible. If one searches, one can find associations of butterflies with dead souls in many cultures, which would be supporting evidence. Unfortunately, if one searches one can find just about anything associated with dead souls in some culture or another. One would have to find a surprising number of butterflies in art, myth, or inscriptions worldwide to get real evidence for the theory.

Still, they are quite different, and that's odd, so there may be something there.
10.27.2008 12:03am
Andrew Janssen (mail):
With regard to the mention by Dr. Weevil of Davies and Kathithamby's hypothesis that butterflies are 'uncanny': I have been told, though I have not been able to verify this, that in some Slavic dialects the same word can be used for 'butterfly' as for 'vampire'.
10.27.2008 12:38am
John Burgess (mail) (www):
Michael Quinion, of World Wide Words, and an editor at OED, discusses the above theories. His preference is for a 'butter-colored flying thing'.

BUTTERFLY">His comments.
10.27.2008 1:15am
Paul Milligan (mail):
Actually, they were originally called 'flutter bys', for obvious reasons. Someone garbled the words, and 'flutter by' became 'butter fly'.

Glad I could help.
10.27.2008 7:33am
Assistant Village Idiot (mail) (www):
Paul Milligan. Assertion. Evidence?
10.27.2008 9:24am
subpatre (mail):
No one here or at the OED/Websters et al seems to know anything about butter. What is it? How does it come to exist or be made? What does it look like? What are its actions or characteristics?

Once a person has seen and understood butter, they will understand butterfly.

Separation from reality has made many people look foolish.
10.27.2008 12:51pm
DeezRightWingNutz:

I was just going to make myself some buttered toast, but somehow it doesn't seem so tasty after the research that led to comment #3.



Apparently Dr. Weevil doesn't like to play soggy biscuits.
10.27.2008 1:00pm
Gabriel McCall (mail):
Once a person has seen and understood butter, they will understand butterfly.

I've made butter myself, the old fashioned way, starting with a cow and a pail, and I have no idea what you're talking about.
10.27.2008 1:11pm
Assistant Village Idiot (mail) (www):
A step behind Gabriel, but I've seen butter being made (haven't done it myself) and I also have no idea what you mean.
10.27.2008 2:30pm
RobinGoodfellow:
Hoosier:

Besides, is there another example, in English, of an entire class of animals being named for a characteristic of it's feces?

How about the dung beetle?

Sorry, I couldn't help myself.
10.27.2008 3:06pm
subpatre (mail):
Well Gabriel, what does the butter do? How does it act?

[The butterfly --an insect-- was named after the substance. Others are trying to find a meaning or relationship working backwards, since in modern thought materials like butter cannot act or have independent characteristics. This approach often works, but fails here because that is not how people --the people who originated the word 'butterfly'-- used to perceive their world.

So there is the problem of lost technology and vanished perspective. Then there is also the cultural gap where people who 'do naming' --biologists, ethnologists, linguists-- never had any relationship to or of knowledge of the naming process. Professionals never had to make, or even observe the making of, butter.]


As to butterflies eating cream or butter, I've never seen them do it (or read a credible claim) and am skeptical of the assertion. Many American yellow and orange varieties drink plant nectar, while many blue and black varieties drink fluids contained in mammal feces and decomposing body parts.

A butterfly's wing, if rubbed, will shed it's scales. The tiny 'feathers' feel greasy, so there's the conceivable connection between yellow (only) butterfies and 'butter look and feel'; but ignores the vast majority of butterflies that are orange, blue, black, etc that also yield a greasy feel without any butter color.


Butter-making is a gentle, almost languid process; one shake or churn per second over a long time. The butter does not fly out of the rocked cream, it drifts and floats and flits about in the cream; like the winged bug does in the air.
10.27.2008 4:00pm
Gabriel McCall (mail):
Butter-making is a gentle, almost languid process; one shake or churn per second over a long time. The butter does not fly out of the rocked cream, it drifts and floats and flits about in the cream; like the winged bug does in the air.


If I stretch for it, I can see the parallel you're drawing. It's an evocative image, but it's not an obvious one. I suppose your explanation sounds plausible... but "plausible" is how lots and lots of charming but totally inaccurate folk etymologies are invented. Don't make the mistake of thinking that just because a linkage is obvious to you personally, that that must be the way the word actually came into use.
10.27.2008 4:15pm
Assistant Village Idiot (mail) (www):
I again echo Gabriel.

Reading up on this, there are a few other theories on the variety of names in different languages - including a variant on Norman Bates's. The butterfly has no economic value that is used in trade or communication across cultures, so it is "allowed" to be an unstable word.

Language changes quickly in the absence of conservative factors (writing, ritual, trade).
10.27.2008 5:27pm
old maltese:
I can't find a reference, but I recall that Ogden Nash took up the challenge of rhyming 'butterfly' and came up with something like:

As I did in the gutter lie,
Looked up -- and saw a butterfly.
10.27.2008 5:48pm
mojo (mail):
It flipped. Should be "Flutterby"...
10.27.2008 6:13pm
Hoosier:
RobinGoodfellow:
Hoosier:

Besides, is there another example, in English, of an entire class of animals being named for a characteristic of it's feces?

How about the dung beetle?

Sorry, I couldn't help myself.


Robin--That had actually occurred to me. But then the dung beetle isn't named after a characteristic of it's own scat, so I gave the little poop-chompers a pass.
10.27.2008 10:13pm