The true meaning and history of the modern word “butterfly” is unclear since it has been used for centuries. However, there are many theories regarding the etymology of the English word.
Old Dutch – boterschijte
The word butterfly may come from the Old Dutch word Boterschijte. “Boterschijte” in English translates to “butter poop.” Butterfly excrement is bright yellow when they first emerge from their chrysalis. The Old Dutch word for butterfly may refer to butterflies as Boterschijte because of the yellow color of their droppings which could be compared to the yellow color of butter.
Another theory for why the Dutch use the term boterschijte is that butterflies eat feces. Adult butterflies can commonly be found sucking on animal feces.
Old German – botterlicker
Old German names for the English word butterfly include “botterlicker,” “milchdieb,” and “molkendieb.” “Botterlicker” translates to “butter licker.” “Milchdieb” translates to “milk thief.” “Molkendieb” means “whey thief.” Whey is the liquid that remains once the milk has been curdled.
People in the middle ages believed that butterflies stole milk and butter. Butterflies cannot chew foods, so they suck on liquid foods instead. It is believed that those who churned butter and created dairy products often spotted butterflies sucking on the leftover liquids and gave the butterflies their Old German terms.
Old English – buterfleoge
The Anglo-Saxons used the word “buterfleoge” to refer to butterflies. Buterfleoge means “butter” and “flying creature.” They called it this because the butterfly they most commonly saw was the yellow brimstone. They used the term butter to describe its yellow color.
The word butterfly could have also been derived from the Old English word “bēatan,” which means “beat,” and the Old English word “Flēoġe,” which means “fly.” These words refer to butterflies’ beating wings.
The word buterfleoge eventually evolved into the Middle English term “butterflie.” There is evidence of 15 different spellings of the word before the Modern English spelling of butterfly.
Another theory as to how butterflies got their name has to do with witchcraft. The Anglo-Saxons believed witches would turn into butterflies at night and steal butter. This belief could have led to people referring to butterflies as “butter creatures.” A similar spelling of the Old English term for butterfly is buttorflēoge, which means “an insect that flies at night.”
Ancient Greek – psyche
Aristotle gave the butterfly the name “psyche,” which is Greek for “soul.” The Ancient Greeks believed that butterflies were the souls of people who had died. Many cultures and religions carry on this belief today.
A form of the Russian language refers to the butterfly as “dushichka,” which also means “soul.” In Mexican culture, people celebrate Dia Day Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. They claim that many butterflies are present during this event.
Psyche is also the name of the Greek god Eros’ lover. The Greek goddess Psyche is often represented with butterfly wings. She is known as the goddess of the soul. She was transformed from a mortal human into a Greek goddess. The Ancient Greeks made a correlation between this transformation to the transformation of a caterpillar to a butterfly.
There are popular stories that state that butterflies were once called flutterbys. This false etymology claims that “butterfly” is a rearrangement of the letters in “flutterby.” This belief is a misconception since the word “flutterby” cannot be traced back to its original origin.
It is true that some people refer to butterflies as flutterbys since the term flutterbys makes more sense to them. Butterflies literally “flutter by.” The term flutterbys also comes from children that struggle to pronounce butterfly.
Yellow Brimstone Butterfly Theory
The term “butterfly” may arise from the pale yellow color of some butterfly species, specifically the male brimstone butterfly. The male brimstone butterfly has yellow-green underwings and yellow upper wings.
It is a common theory that “butterfly” is derived from “butter-colored fly.” However, this theory is also commonly questioned by many people since there are thousands of species of butterflies, most of which do not have yellow wings.
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Whitney has always admired the beautiful Kentucky scenery in which she resides. As a child, butterflies would often land on Whitney. Their beauty and constant presence inspired her to learn more about them. She now enjoys writing about the wondrous creature.