Wednesday, 8 October 2008


Helena asked about butterfly. It seems that this word is exactly what it looks like: butter plus fly. As for why this is the case, no one knows. podictionary lists some theories: they like milk or butter, they're yellow, they steal milk. The OED's theory:

The reason of the name is unknown: Wedgwood points out a Du. synonym boterschijte in Kilian, which suggests that the insect was so called from the appearance of its excrement.

I've previously written about butter and fly. I was struck with the etymology of butter in the OED:

[OE. butere wk. fem. (in compounds buttor-); ad. L. butyrum, ad. Gr. βούτυρον... The Gr. is usually supposed to be f. βους ox or cow + τυρός cheese, but is perhaps of Scythian or other barbarous origin.]

Barbarous origin? When was this entry last updated, I wonder. On the other hand, the earliest meaning of barbarous was "not Greek or Latin".

addendum: Wordzguy mentions the interesting fact that many European languages have their own unrelated words for this insect. But the OED mentions German and Dutch cognates (Butterfliege and botervlieg). I assume these words are old and were replaced with the modern Schmetterling and vlinder. Does anyone know more about this?


Helena said...

Thanks for answering my last comment so promptly.
Best wishes.

Drew said...

When I was a kid, I received a book title Who Put the Butter in the Butterfly?. It was part of a series that explored such hard-to-answer questions. This one focused specifically on words. Looking back on that book now, I feel like it may have included a lot of folk etymologies. But for the titular question, the author proposed that the term came from a belief that dairy product-stealing witches took the form of butterflies when they went to steal butter. I think. It was a long time ago.

In trying to look this up, I came across a site that mentions the book as well as a few other possible explanations.

WordzGuy said...

I always found it interesting that the words for butterfly in English, German, and Spanish (thus exhausting my inventory of personal experience) were so very different. It seems like it could plausibly have come down to us from some sort of PIE root. And yet apparently not. Everyone wandered off and then made up their own word. (?)

goofy said...

Altho, according to the OED, there are German and Dutch cognates (Butterfliege and botervlieg). I guess these are old words that were replaced with the modern Schmetterling and vlinder. I wonder why.

The Baranxtu National Review said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mr Bernie said...

Well, if you got comment notification on, this will be a very belated addendum, if not, maybe another archive delver will learn something...
I recently read that German Schmetterling probably is derived from Czech smetana, based on the same belief that butterflies like dairy products.