Butterflies are a mixture of “Butter” and “Flies”. This is either because of the cream colour of the first species we discovered, or due to a common myth that they used to enjoy eating dairy products.
Butterflies are one of the very few bugs that are liked by everyone. Unlike some other insects, they’re not gross and creepy, but rather pretty and pleasant. But for a while now there’s been one thing about them that I could never understand. Why are they called butterflies?
But then, I was talking to a friend one day who told me that they’re called butterflies because it’s a cross between “butter and flies”. I felt so stupid, not knowing something so obvious!
Although that does lead onto the question of why they’re called butterflies, they’re not made of butter, and they’re not flies.
There are two prevailing theories about why they’re called “butter”. I won’t be saying which one I think is the most plausible, but I will instead leave that down to you.
The first theory states that in the past, there was a myth about them that they loved butter and other dairy products. It was likely coming from the fact that people would often see them near such products.
The other theory states that the colour of some of the first ones we discovered were cream coloured, just like butter. Even when people found new species, the name stuck around.
Etymology of butter
Butter is an ancient word. And that’s because it’s an old food. Ever since we’ve been drinking milk from cows, we’ve been turning their milk into butter.
It makes sense, it’s got a high dairy content, but it also keeps for much longer than milk does, which would have been ideal for a time when fridges weren’t invented yet.
In Ancient Greece, they would have called it “Boutron” which literally translates as “cow cheese”. Odd when you consider that most cheese is cow cheese. In old English, it became Butere before becoming butter.
Regardless of its origin, it’s nice to know people have always liked bread and butter.
What type of word is butter?
It probably doesn’t take a genius to figure out that butterfly is a noun. For those of you who’ve forgotten your primary school English lessons, a noun is a thing, usually something you can physically touch.
But there’s a few different categories of noun. While most of us will think of butterfly as a simple noun, like a cat or dog, it is technically a compound noun.
A compound noun is where you take two words to form a new word, and that new word is a noun, in this case, butter and fly combined to make butterfly.
Plural words are a bit of a weird thing, and it’s kind of glitch in the matrix of the English language. Why do we say butterflies and not butterflys?
Some of you might think it’s because it ends in a y and all words that end in y use ies.
But if that’s the case why don’t we say “The boies were playing with their toies”?
If the letter before the y is a vowel, we use an s. But if the letter before the y is a consonant, we use ies.
Why do we do this? Because the English language says so!
It’s not just us
But back to the name itself. Funnily enough, it’s not just the English language that combines butter with fly to make the word butterfly. So either some languages have been stealing from each other, or people in different countries used the same logic when they named these animals.
For example, in Germany, a butterfly is a Schmetterling.
In French, it’s a Papillon.
And in Italian, it’s a Farfalla.
All these languages and many others have used the same logic as the English Language.
However, other languages have gone down a slightly different path with this word.
Some languages, such as Dutch, have named it after the fact it flutters. They call it Vlindre.
Others believe it looks a bit like a bird with its graceful wings and beautiful colours. Sommerfugl (in Norway) and Fjaril (In Sweden) both mean “Summer bird”. I know it’s not a bird, but I can’t criticise, it’s not a fly either.
And in Spanish, they call it Mariposa, meaning Mary Alight. Named after the mother Mary, probably because she and a butterfly are both beautiful and bring peace.
In your stomach?
Butterflies have made their way into many parts of the English language, including Idoyms. These are common phrases that we say all the time, without even thinking about.
Whenever you get nervous, you might say that you have butterflies in your stomach. Of course, you don’t. They’d be burnt to death by your stomach acid, but it feels as if you do.
This is an effect that’s caused by restricted blood flow in your stomach area. Paratrooper “Bill Gardener” initially said the phrase:
“I landed all right and although I’ll always have butterflies in my stomach every time I go…”.
Another phrase you might have heard relating to butterflies is the butterfly effect. This is a phrase often used in Sci-Fi films, but it can happen in the real world too.
The butterfly effect is when a small and seemingly insignificant action is taken, which ends up having significant consequences in the long run. Although this is probably more to do with philosophy than science, it’s still worth thinking about.
The reason we say “Butterfly effect” is because butterflies, while amazing, are rather small and don’t impact the world on a vast scale. But even the wing flap of a butterfly can go onto have tremendous consequences.
Butterflies are called butterflies because it’s a cross between butter and flies. This is not only the case with the English word but in other languages too. But then again, others have gone down a slightly different etymology path.
The reason they’re called butterflies is either because people used to think they liked butter or people used to believe they were coloured like butter. But ever since they were named, they’ve become part of our language with phrases such as “butterflies in my stomach” and “butterfly effect”.