As a followup to my earlier post on words for ‘butterfly,’ I offer you the funny and erudite reflections of Q. Pheevr on the English word:

Still, butterfly is a funny thing to call a butterfly, isn’t it? It’s also not obvious exactly what the compound means—okay, so it’s probably right-headed, and therefore refers to some sort of flying insect. But what, exactly, is the relation between the ‘butter’ part and the ‘fly’ part? (OED sez: “The reason of the name is unknown,” but offers some speculation, to which I return below.) There are several possibilities. I hope that the Language Loggers will forgive me for saying this, but Sanskrit has at least four words for ‘compound’, and I intend to use them here to illustrate the multiplicity of possible meanings of butterfly.

And so he does; I’ll quote here my favorite:

Butterfly could be a tatpurusha compound, in which the relation is one of interaction rather than resemblance. For example, a butterfly could be an insect that eats butter, in which case one would have to wonder, as Alice did of the bread-and-butter fly, how it could possibly survive without human intervention. Or it could be quite the reverse—an insect that shits butter, as suggested by the OED: “Wedgwood points out a Dutch synonym boterschijte in Kilian, which suggests that the insect was so called from the appearance of its excrement.” Trouble is, as A World for Butterflies points out, butterflies don’t shit. (Caterpillars do, though, and apparently there is one species that, thanks to a diet of yellow flowers, does emit appropriately coloured frass. (Yes, caterpillar shit is called frass, and yes, it’s derived from fressen. The OED defines frass as “the excrement of larvæ; also, the refuse left behind by boring insects,” and although I’m sure Nabokov (whose birthday was Earth Day) would have insisted that there are no boring insects, I will not.))

Now, there’s a man who knows how to parenthesize (and yes, that is a word; Southey wrote (in his “unfinished and, indeed, unfinishable” The Doctor, which sounds quite intriguing from this description and which includes the first published version of “The Story of the Three Bears”): “Sir Kenelm Digby observes… that ‘it is a common speech (but’, he parenthesizes, ‘only amongst the unlearned sort) ubi tres medici duo athei’.”).

(Via Mark Liberman at Language Log.)

Update (Mar. 2023). I’ve provided an archived version of “The Story of the Three Bears,” but the bartleby.school.aol.com URL linked at “this description” has not been saved by the Wayback Machine. Bah.


  1. I was taught (by a book called Who put the butter in butterfly?, one of my childhood favorites) that butterfly was originally flutterby. Maybe that’s just folk etymology, I don’t know.

  2. Doug Sundseth says

    “Maybe that’s just folk etymology, I don’t know.”
    Or folk entomology — one or the other. (I’ve heard the same story.)

  3. I was very interested to read this post about butterflies, partly because I’ve been reading some “fascinating” articles about the staggering amount of variety of Dutch dialect words for butterfly (the common name of which is, I’d like to point, out “vlinder” in Dutch; the name mentioned above is a dialect variety).
    Dutch is a language with about 100 completely different dialects (and yes, they all have their own variations in grammar, vocabulary and pronounciation – don’t get me started. Each of these dialects can be roughly subdivided into smaller subdialects all employing their own words for “vlinder”.
    You can get some more information at this site (provided you happen to know some Dutch): http://fuzzy.arts.kuleuven.ac.be/rewo/vlinder.htm
    I’ve just looked it up: the word “boterschijte” (variations: boterschuite, schijteboter and boterkapelle) is now used most in the westernmost part of Flanders – look it up, people. It’s the tiniest area ever.
    The site indicates two suggestions to explain the somewhat bizarre usage of butter:
    (1) It’s rooted in the colour of butterfly excrements;
    (2) Some species of butterflies typical of the region are yellow;
    (3) There has been an association between butter (regional dialect for the standard Dutch “boter”) and “butse”, which is a kind of hat.
    … Frankly, they don’t know, if you ask me.

  4. Very interesting post. Makes people think, which is cool.
    I noticed your comment over on MonkeyFilter. The reason that blog was #2 was because she helped on my first day with a button and advise. I’m sure you will be happy to note that I have liberal leaning blogs coming soon. I highlight based on how people help compliment, not necessarily for what they blog about.
    Hope that clears things up. I’m in it for the compliments and spreading cheer! That’s it.

  5. Mark, I wasn’t blogging or reading blogs when you first posted on “butterfly.” But now I am doing both. I note that you said in your first post: “enjoy the variety of (often semi-onomatopoeic) words [for “butterfly”].” I can vouch for this in Cheyenne, with which I work. The Cheyenne word is hevavahkema with the nice reduplication of the [va]. As far as I can tell, the Cheyenne word has something to do with fanning/flapping the air, as do the wings of a butterfly (erstwhile flutterby? I thought that “flutterby” was just a fun spoonerism.)

  6. Quote from: http://groups.google.no/groups?selm=3CF1532B.61DCD562%40sonic.net
    The Slavic word for ‘cream’ also entered German (East Central area) as the regional _Schmetten_, and the German word for butterfly, _Schmetterling_, is derived from it too. Folklore has it that witches assume the shape of butterflies to steal cream and milk.
    Snide aside: English dictionaries evade explaining why butterflies are called butterflies (that is, nothing beyond “butter” + “fly”). Their editors could take a hint from German. There are many German dialect terms for this insect, including _Butterfliege_ (lit., ‘butterfly’). The connection between “butter” and “cream” is obvious, and a little digging in British folklore might find a similar belief.

  7. I posted over there too, but here is my theory, which is mine:
    I think that the word is actually a compound of “butt” and “erfly”. Unfortunately “erfly” is a rare word of unknown meaning, but at least this puts us on the right track. Considering the butterfly’s body type and apparent lack of a butt, probably “erfly” is a privative of some sort. Possibly analogous words are “tacterfly” (= a boor) and “gelderfly” (= a pauper.)

  8. Nichterfly, then, for optimists like the Complimenting Commenter up there.
    Hat, I just knew you couldn’t help parenthesizing profusely at the mention of the word. You’re incorrigible, really, but who could begrudge you that mention of Southey?
    I don’t know if I said this on the previous butterfly post, but my favorite word in my native Yoruba is the word for the butterfly: labalaba. Probably onomatopoetic.
    And, I don’t know if there’s a Yoruba word for flutterby, but if there were, would it be balabala?

  9. Brecht, thanks for the Dutch link, fascinating — the number of butterfly variants illustrates how very different those dialects were.
    I wonder if other parts of Europe had such linguistic diversity in a similar geographic area? I’m surmising that since Holland and Friesland were formerly a collection of islands and high ground separated by marshes, low mobility among the population encouraged formation of many dialects. On the other hand, the dialects map here (http://www.ned.univie.ac.at/publicaties/taalgeschiedenis/nl/dialkarte.htm.) shows fragmentation even over the higher terrain of Belgium and the eastern Netherlands.

  10. I thought that “flutterby” was just a fun spoonerism
    It is that and nothing more.
    John E.: That’s erfly clever of yer.
    Snide aside: English dictionaries evade explaining why butterflies are called butterflies (that is, nothing beyond “butter” + “fly”)
    No, they don’t explain because they don’t know, and neither do you. Folklore is not etymology, and the fact that there happens to be a folk belief involving cream-stealing witches has no necessary connection with the origin of the word.

  11. Abdul-Walid (what does that name mean? Servant of the Boy? My Arabic sucks, but I can parenthesize), the only thing that sucks worse than my Arabic is my Yoruba. Doesn’t Yoruba have tones? Can you tell us what the tones are on labalaba. It’s a lovely word but I’d like to pronounce it correctly.

  12. Over on the other site I properly credited Jack Handy, the originator of this particular linguistic paradigm, who pointed out the deep philosophical significance of the fact that the word “mankind” is compounded from “mank” and “ind”.

  13. Mr. Handy was aware, of course, of the six different OED entries for mank; some of the senses are: a fuss, to-do; a disorder of the blood; a trick, a practical joke; (as an adjective) maimed, mutilated, defective; (as a verb) to fool about, mess around; to play tricks. Makes sense to me.

  14. As one of the elite group of people who know the meaning of ‘frass’, my husband just about died laughing at the scene in the movieSideways where our two heros drive into the all-smoke-no-fire vineyard ‘Frass Canyon’. I had to poke him in the side to find ou what was so funny.

  15. my personal favourite use of the root ‘mank’ is ‘manky’ (spoilt, disgusting, old, rotten). Mankind is pretty manky, now I think about it.

  16. Abdul-Walid, what does that name mean? Servant of the Boy?
    Are you looking for trouble? My name, which was given to me by my grandmother, means, something like “Newborn in the service of the Lord.” I figured going with “Old Poetry Whore” would have been too Acerbic, even for me.
    Can you tell us what the tones are on labalaba?

  17. I have no idea how the commenter above just did that. Mr Elck, he dead.

  18. So “mankerfly” would be “lacking in foolishness”. Or maybe “defective with regard to foolishnes” (= very foolish.)
    Handy may not have known. He seemed to want “mank” to be a nonsense syllable.

  19. Mr Elck, he dead
    Sadly common: beauty fades, elcks die, only the Acerbic Old Poetry Whores are left.
    Handy may not have known.
    Nonsense. Jack Handy knows all.
    Last night I dreamt I went to Mankerfly again…

  20. Mr. Elck? Mr. A. Elke? With the theory, which is his?
    The “Butt” + “erfly” theory is mine.

  21. Just for the record, Everything in my comment was a quote from Usenet. The snide aside was not mine, and I wasn’t claiming to know.
    The writer of the snide aside is Reinhold Aman, German philologist, and publisher of Maledicta.
    My apologies for any confusion.

  22. The most enjoyable part of parenthesizing is perhaps getting all the punctuation to pile up neatly at the end.

  23. The writer of the snide aside is Reinhold Aman, German philologist, and publisher of Maledicta.
    My apologies for any confusion.

    No, the apologies are mine. Had I followed your link, I would have realized you were quoting from it. Ah, Reinhold Aman, master of the Dirty Word! His theories may be crackpot and his personality regrettable, but I do enjoy his efforts to collect every obscenity known to man.
    The most enjoyable part of parenthesizing is perhaps getting all the punctuation to pile up neatly at the end.

  24. The “Butt” + “erfly” theory is mine.
    Sir, I knew Jack Handy. I drove to Disneyland with Jack Handy, I laughed with Jack Handy at the big man crying. You, sir, are no Jack Handy.

  25. A question here from the world of elementary school: Some teachers teach that butterfly is a compound word, like sunglasses, shoehorn (bad example, no kid knows what that is, especially English language learners.) I maintain that butterfly is technically not a compound word because the insect is not a fly that goes into butter, etc. What do all y’all great intellectuals think?

  26. Having seldom sung with lasses, I can’t claim to really know.
    But, in my opinion, the “erfly” theory (see Mr E. Merson’s comment above) shouldn’t be jettisoned too quickly.

  27. A lot of people today sneer at the ancients and their wisdom, but what bothers me is that they’re not around any more, so we can’t sneer at them personally, to their faces.

  28. These comments are hilarious. Who said nerds can’t be funny?

  29. Ingeborg S. Nordén says

    “Erfly” as an independent word? I’d need to see some neutral third-party citation to believe it…some jokes are too obvious to fall for IMO.

  30. Ingeborg, I think if you’ll peruse the annals of the Journal of Irreproducible Results, you’ll find numerous citations and exagminations.

  31. Sung + lasses belongs to Nabokov.

  32. Ingeborg, Google “erfly” and you will get 20,000 hits. I don’t know what more proof you need.

  33. Ingeborg S. Nordén says

    ALL of which appear to be either butt/butterfly puns, sites on which the string “butt” is censored, or unusually written screennames. Still not convinced of its status as an independent word, sorry!

  34. Ingeborg, your cynicism is hurtful.

  35. I sincerely doubt that you looked at all 20,000 hits. And you are the one calling for empiricism!

  36. Sung + lasses belongs to Nabokov.
    Nonsense. There’s lots of poetry in classical Chinese about this very topic, pre-dating Mr. Nabokov by nearly a millenium.

  37. Sung + lasses belongs to Nabokov.
    I’m reluctant to cite the old saw about great minds and thinking alike, Mr Fever, but you really leave me no choice.
    Ingeborg, please stop hurting John. Thank you.

  38. Ingeborg S. Nordén says

    John has a thinner skin than I thought, it would seem: I have no deep emotional investment in the status of “erfly” as a valid word, but still don’t accept it as one. As long as we can agree to disagree (trite, but useful phrase there)…I’m willing to call a truce.

  39. God bless us every one!

  40. I’m DYING with laughter here…

  41. Ingeborg S. Nordén says

    *chuckle* Considering that ALL insects lack buttocks…even if John’s analysis were etymologically valid (a question I’m leaving behind), it would make no sense to call just one family of insects by a name that described all such animals. That would be like giving one particular genus of fish a name meaning “legless”, “hairless” or “cold-blooded” when all fish share those traits.
    People who deal with animals more in their everyday life (as the early English did) tend to give those animals distinctive names which make practical sense. Since every insect they saw lacked buttocks, and since butterflies have more obvious characteristics than that…why was the word not originally used to mean ALL insects?

  42. “Simon” wrote:
    The writer of the snide aside is Reinhold Aman, German philologist, and publisher of Maledicta.
    My apologies for any confusion.
    “language hat” replied:
    No, the apologies are mine. Had I followed your link, I would have realized you were quoting from it. Ah, Reinhold Aman, master of the Dirty Word! His theories may be crackpot and his personality regrettable, but I do enjoy his efforts to collect every obscenity known to man. […]
    Posted by: language hat at May 18, 2005 07:54 AM
    Look, you anonymous dickhead, my “crackpot” theories are all factual information from reliable & scholarly reference works. If that information whooshes over your pointed head, that’s not my problem.
    As to my “regrettable” personality, at least I *have* a personality, you backstabbing faceless weasel.
    Don’t bother to respond; I just saw your drool because a friend alerted me to it and I won’t be back in your lowbrow territory.

  43. Dr. Aman! I’m truly honored to have had you visit my humble comment section; just in case you or your friend do happen to visit again, let me reiterate how much I appreciate your work. As for the rest, you and I both know you’ve been called much worse; I guess it might have been more diplomatic to say “difficult” than “regrettable,” but I would think you’d be the last person to insist on diplomatic language. Anyway, thanks again for dropping by!

  44. George was a bit barfly after eighteen hours in the pub.

  45. And while I’m at it, anyone who calls himself “Mumblety Mumble, Ph.D” is a pretentious idiot.

  46. AJP Crown says

    The late and lamented Dr Eve Leoff, who taught English at Hunter College used to carry her PhD diploma in her handbag just in case she got in an argument somewhere about Jane Austen or Keats and her authority was doubted.

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