Nick Kaldis writes:
I've started buying English etymology books for my 8-year-old daughter and I to explore; today we discovered that "butterfly" comes from "butter" + "shit", because their feces resemble butter.
This sounded suspicious to me. Why wouldn't it just be "butter" + "fly"? After all, it is a flying insect, and it might have something to do with "butter", such as that its wings resemble butter or that it likes to hover around butter. But those were merely initial surmises, so I thought that I'd better check several dictionaries. I went to The Free Dictionary, but none of the sources there (American Heritage Dictionary, Collins English Dictionary — Complete and Unabridged, Random House Kernerman Webster's College Dictionary) supported the "butter" + "shit" etymology, so I turned to the Online Etymology Dictionary, which does mention the "shit" etymology as an alternative possibility:
Old English buttorfleoge, evidently butter (n.) + fly (n.), but of obscure signification. Perhaps based on the old notion that the insects (or witches disguised as butterflies) consume butter or milk that is left uncovered. Or, less creatively, simply because the pale yellow color of many species' wings suggests the color of butter. Another theory connects it to the color of the insect's excrement, based on Dutch cognate boterschijte.
The Online Etymology Dictionary also linked to a blog post, "Butterfly Etymology", by Matthew Rabuzzi || Cupertino, CA. U.S.A.
Here’s a little bagatelle (or, very imprecisely, a bugatelle!) of entomology etymology. I’ve long been fascinated by the large variety of distinct words for “butterfly” in various Indo-European languages. Here is my butterfly collection, which I hope will be of more than “e-vanessa-nt” interest.
From Matthew Rabuzzi's post, which deals with words for "butterfly" in around two dozen different languages, I select the one for "'Butterfly' in English":
- Middle English buterflie, Old English buttorfleoge (written citation 1000 C.E.)The Oxford English Dictionary notes some old Dutch words “botervlieg” and “boterschijte,” and conjectures that butterflies’ excrement may have been thought to resemble butter, hence giving the name “butter-shit,” then “butter-fly”.
Webster’s Third New International Dictionary says perhaps the word comes from the notion that butterflies, or witches in that form, stole milk and butter (see German “Schmetterling” below).
Even though this is based on the OED, I'm still dubious of the need to connect English "butterfly" with old Dutch "boterschijte", when we can more directly go to old Dutch "botervlieg".
I'm also not very impressed by the note on Mandarin hu-tieh in this source, which states:
As the word for 70 (years) is “tieh”, the butterfly thus becomes a punning symbol of longevity. It also represents young men in love (whereas in Japan it is young maidenhood or marital hapiness [sic]).
This completely skips the thorny problem of the actual etymology of the Chinese word for "butterfly" (húdié 蝴蝶 / 胡蝶), which is botched in almost all lexicographical sources. I will turn to the difficult etymology of the Chinese word for butterfly momentarily, but first let us take care of the note about the second syllable of the Chinese word for "butterfly" serving as a pun for "the word for 70 (years)". The note must be referring to dié 耋, variant 耊. This is an old character that occurs already in the Classic of Changes (an annotation states that it refers to 70 [years]) and in the first dictionary of character construction, the Shuowen.
According to this standard online dictionary, this uncommon character can refer to an older person in their 70s or 80s.
People usually use the disyllabic term màodié 耄耋 to refer to an elderly person of eighty or ninety. The 70s are generally referred to as gǔxī 古稀, while the 60s are called huājiǎ 花甲.
The rarity of the character dié 耋 is borne out by the fact that teachers often put it on tests. As one of my graduate students from China wrote:
I do know it as the phrase "màodié zhī nián 耄耋之年 (ripe old age)", which frequently appeared in my Chinese examinations during high school to test our mastery of its pinyin pronunciation.
In other words, the pronunciation of dié 耋 is neither transparent nor widely known.
I have never seen the second syllable of húdié 蝴蝶 ("butterfly") used to stand for the dié 耋 that signifies 70 or 80 years of age, nor have any of my Chinese friends, colleagues, and students whom I asked heard it used that way. Perhaps it is occasionally used in that fashion on an ad hoc basis. I do not think that it is a widespread usage that is well-known among the population on the whole.
Chinese do love to use such puns, of course, and some of them are well established; for instance, biānfú 蝙蝠 ("bat" [the winged mammal] — the characters have "insect" radicals) customarily stands for fúqi 福气 ("good fortune").
I'll leave it to others to tell us whether the butterfly in China also "represents young men in love (whereas in Japan it is young maidenhood or marital hapiness [sic])".
But I promised to explain the true etymology of húdié 蝴蝶 ("butterfly"). First of all, I should note that this disyllabic word was the subject of a famous article by the Yale linguist, George A. Kennedy, entitled "The Butterfly Case" (in Wennti, 8 [March, 1955]), which was a followup to his even more famous piece called "The Monosyllabic Myth" (in Journal of the American Oriental Society, 71.3 , 161-166), both of which are reprinted in Tien-yi Li, ed., Selected Works of George A. Kennedy (New Haven: Far Eastern Publications, 1964), respectively pp. 274-322 and pp. 104-118. In these articles, Kennedy was writing about the fact that some Sinitic morphemes are disyllabic and how húdié 蝴蝶 ("butterfly") is a prime example. The case is recounted in brief in J. Marshall Unger's Ideogram: Chinese Characters and the Myth of Disembodied Meaning (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2004), p. 7.
We are fortunate to have an extraordinarily rich treatment of the genuine etymology of Sinitic húdié 蝴蝶 ("butterfly") in Wiktionary:
From Middle Chinese *ɣo dep (first syllable unstressed), from Old Chinese *ɡa-lep, derived from a proto-form of *kʰleːp ~ *ɦleːp, a prefixed form of the root *lep ("wide, flat", represented by the phonetic element 枼).
Cognates from the same word family:
- 葉 (*lep, “leaf”)
- 鰈 (*l’eːp, “flatfish, plaice”)
- 楪 > 碟 (*l’eːp, “plate”)
- 牒 (*l’eːp, “official document < plank”).
This word in Chinese is related to Proto-Tibeto-Burman *lep ("butterfly"), the source of
Outside Sino-Tibetan, compare Middle Korean
- 나븨 (napuy, “butterfly”) (Modern 나비 (nabi, “nabi”))
- 닢 (nip, “leaf”) (Modern 잎 (ip, “ip”))
- 넙치 (neopchi, “flatfish”),
See also Axel Schuessler's ABC Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese, p. 281.
This is a prime example of a widespread phenomenon in Old Sinitic. Whenever we have a disyllabic morpheme or word in Old Sinitic, we can expect that it will reflect one or more of the properties inherent in húdié 蝴蝶 ("butterfly"). That is to say, it will often have a proto-form that is a consonantally complex monosyllable that undergoes disyllabification or dimidiation and other phonological changes. It is also often possible to link such disyllabic morphemes and words to non-Sinitic cognates.
Finally, I don't want to push this too far, but I cannot help but notice the resemblance between these Asian words and the Latinate name for "butterfly": Lepidoptera.
From Online Etymology Dictionary:
1773, "insects with four scaly wings," the biological classification that includes butterflies and moths, coined 1735 in Modern Latin by Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus (Karl von Linné, 1707-1778) from Greek lepido-, comb. form of lepis (genitive lepidos) "(fish) scale" (related to lepein "to peel;" see leper) + pteron "wing, feather" (see ptero-).
"one afflicted with leprosy," late 14c., from Late Latin lepra, from Greek lepra "leprosy," from fem. of lepros (adj.) "scaly," from leops "a scale," related to lepein "to peel," from lopos "a peel," from PIE root *lep- "to peel, scale" (see leaf (n.)). Originally the word for the disease itself (mid-13c.); because of the -er ending it came to mean "person with leprosy," so leprosy was coined 16c. from adjective leprous.
Old English leaf "leaf of a plant; page of a book," from Proto-Germanic *laubaz (cognates: Old Saxon lof, Old Norse lauf, Old Frisian laf, Dutch loof, Old High German loub, German Laub "foliage, leaves," Gothic lauf), perhaps from PIE *leup- "to peel off, break off" (cognates: Lithuanian luobas, Old Church Slavonic lubu "bark, rind"). Extended 15c. to very thin sheets of metal (especially gold). Meaning "hinged flap on the side of a table" is from 1550s.
Note that several of the cited Asian cognates of the Sinitic word for "butterfly" mean "leaf" or "plate" (cf. the Sinitic root *lep ("wide, flat").
Since "Lepidoptera" is a modern Latin scientific term, it would not have any direct relationship to the Asian words referring to butterflies, but it is curious that — if only analogously — they were apparently formed with attention to the same properties.
Note from Joe Farrell:
In Greek, a butterfly was a psyche, the same word that means "breath" or "soul"; the Latin papilio (> Fr. papillon) also means "canopy" (> pavilion), but I don't know its etymology. I suppose that lepidoptera, "delicate-winged," was made up by Linnaeus or one of his predecessors, maybe on an ancient model.
Note from Don Ringe:
Lepidoptera is a modern coinage using Greek words to form a compound "scale-wing". The Latin word is papilio (cf. French papillon); I don't remember the Greek word, and I don't think it's attested in Tocharian. There *is* something interesting about Old English buterfleoge, though: it probably has nothing to do with butter, but might be related to the verb beatan 'to beat' (Elmar Seebold, Vergleichendes und etymologisches Wörterbuch der germanischen starken Verben, p. 91).
[Thanks to Fangyi Cheng, Yixue Yang, Leqi Yu, Jing Wen, and Ben Zimmer]