Moth onomastics: Chinese Character (Cilix glaucata)

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"Chinese character" is the name for a moth in this Wikipedia article.  At first when I read the article, I thought that there must have been an error.  But when I started to check around, I discovered that the same English name for Cilix glaucata occurred all over the place.

See, for example, Moths and Butterflies of Europe and North Africa, also UKMoths, an online guide to the moths of Great Britain and Ireland.

Here we learn something else weird about this moth besides its name:

This unusual-looking moth combines its wing-pattern and resting posture to give the appearance of a bird-dropping, thus avoiding the attention of hungry birds.

UKMoths is not the only website that maintains this view about the appearance of the Chinese Character.

Norfolk Moths:

When at rest, with its head tucked away under its thorax, and its feet well hidden away under its wings, the moth looks just like a bird dropping!

This moth has delicate silvery markings on some of the veins, and these suggest a character in the Chinese alphabet, hence its common name.

While I might, with some reservation and effort, accept that this pretty silvery white moth resembles a bird dropping, no matter how hard I look at it I can't see the Chinese character, much less "a character in the Chinese alphabet".  It may take someone with more imagination than me to see a Chinese character in the markings on the wings of Cilix glaucata.

I thought I'd look around and see what Cilix glaucata is called in other languages.

For German, I consulted (English-German Dictionary):

Weißer Glanzspinne
Weißer Sichelflügler

I found another German name on Lepiforum:


There are many clear photographs of specimens with the wings fully extended on this site, but I still don't see the Chinese characters that English people claim to see.

For Dutch, I looked at Vlindernet:

witte eenstaart

For French, I checked Lépi Net:

La Petite Epine

For Norwegian (bokmål), we have Artsdatabanken:


For Welsh, we have the Wikpedia in that language:

gwyfyn arian y drain

And this from the Finnish Wikipedia:


Still no Chinese character in sight, at least not for me.

Here's the best photograph of Cilix glaucata that I could find, and I still can't see a Chinese character on its wing.

Does any other language beside English call Cilix glaucata something like "Chinese Character"?  Do any Language Log readers see a Chinese character on the wings of Cilix glaucata — whether or not you think it looks like a bird dropping?

If it were up to me, I'd probably call it "milky silverspot".  Compare Myrtle's silverspot and Behrens' silverspot, which are butterflies.

[Hat tip Michael Carr; thanks to Richard Warmington]


  1. Howard Oakley said,

    January 25, 2015 @ 2:11 pm

    We have these locally here (in England), and the name is one of the better-known names for moths. Although the images shown do not make it clear, they do look like bird droppings, and the marks along the edge of the wings do vaguely resemble non-Roman characters, perhaps the brush strokes of Chinese characters. Sadly I do not have an image to support this!

  2. j2h said,

    January 25, 2015 @ 2:20 pm

    in this picture:

    the markings do somewhat resemble a stretched 山.

  3. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 25, 2015 @ 2:21 pm

    Traditional moth names are often rather whimsical. There's also one called Setaceous Hebrew Character, also Lesser Black-letter Dart, Xestia c-nigrum. One person's c is another person's nun.

    (My greatest lepidopteral regret is that when I photographed such a moth on my porch, I didn't measure it. The only way to tell it from its close relative Xestia dolosa is by size. I'd love to have taken a picture of the Setaceous Hebrew Character.)

  4. Victor Mair said,

    January 25, 2015 @ 2:28 pm


    I had to scan your jpg URL into my browser to see the photograph, but it is a beauty. Thanks! And, yes, from that angle and on that specimen, I do see faint lines that my be interpreted as a widened 山.

  5. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 25, 2015 @ 2:34 pm

    I suspect the "character" is the white mark on the blotch in the middle of the wing. It looks sort of drawn and meaningful to me, whether it looks Chinese or not. Image here.

  6. S Frankel said,

    January 25, 2015 @ 2:36 pm

    Maybe the markings resemble characters that have been smudged after a long sea voyage. I wonder when the term came into use – there's no listing in the OED for it. Non-linguistically inclined moth people in, say, the 17th or 18th centuries might really have had no contact with characters except for a few smeared impressions.

    Also, it doesn't matter to the moth whether any of us think it looks like bird droppings. It only matters whether birds do.

  7. anya said,

    January 25, 2015 @ 3:49 pm

    No idea if historically plausible, but could whoever named it have meant a Manchu character?

  8. anya said,

    January 25, 2015 @ 3:53 pm

    P.S. Now I see j2h's and Jerry Friedman's comments and they win. My Manchurian hypothesis is no longer.

  9. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 25, 2015 @ 3:56 pm

    We seem to be agreeing (well, I didn't know that's what I was doing). For confirmation, the entomologist Richard South ascribed the name "Chinese Character" to Adrian Hardy Haworth, presumably in his 1803 book Lepidoptera Britannica. Haworth says, "[Alae] Anticae paulo ante medium macula ovata subolivacea in qua venae argentescentes litera tenuissima et composita constituunt."

    I'm sure there are people here who actually know Latin, but I think he's saying the forewings have a small, oval, sort of olive-colored spot in front of the center, in which the silvery veins form a very slender, composite letter. He says something similar but shorter at the beginning of his description.

  10. Richard W said,

    January 25, 2015 @ 5:24 pm

    "It's little more than 15 mm from top to toe and takes its name from its wing markings, which resemble a Chinese silk painting!"

    "It gets its name from the metallic markings in the centre of the wing."

    "The central portion of this blotch is marked with silvery spots which are said to resemble Chinese characters."
    Butterflies and Moths, by William S. Furneaux

    "Its markings and coloration remain remarkably consistent throughout the species. […] The wing markings are very delicate and precise."

    Also, check out the larva form of the Chinese character:

  11. Victor Mair said,

    January 25, 2015 @ 5:39 pm

    No, Anya, don't give up on the Manchu hypothesis. I think it has a lot going for it.

    Several of my colleagues have suggested oracle bone forms, but I doubt that the people who called Cilix glaucata "Chinese character" would have known about them.

  12. _Mark_ said,

    January 25, 2015 @ 6:38 pm

    Note that these are the same people that think "comma" and "question mark" are usefully descriptive names for other butterfly species…

  13. Victor Mair said,

    January 25, 2015 @ 6:47 pm

    By now I've looked carefully at about forty photographs of the wings of different specimens, and I have to say that the silvery vein patterns are not always identical, but, more often than not, there are four tines, not three, as would be required for the 山 hypothesis, attractive though it may be when judging from some specimens.

  14. J. F. said,

    January 25, 2015 @ 11:08 pm

    Half a dozen ghits for Cilix glaucata "letra china"

    By the way, both French and Spanish call moths the equivalent of "night butterflies".

  15. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 26, 2015 @ 12:15 am

    J. F.: All the hits I get on Cilix glaucata "letra china" are the same: polilla "letra china" * sobre el cristal de una ventana.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    January 26, 2015 @ 2:22 pm

    First approach to the Latin sentence alone by a colleague who is a professor of classics:


    "a bit in front of the middle [there is] an egg-shaped, rather olive-colored [I think this refers to color, unless it means "an oval, more or less olive-shaped] spot in which silverish lines (or threads or, in fact, veins)…" — and here, just where you want to be precise, it's a bit confusing. Are you sure it's litera, not literas or literam? And similarly with tenuissima and composita? I don't suppose this work is old enough to use abbreviations like litera' ?


    Second try after I showed him the whole post, including lots of photographs:


    After a little checking, I can confirm that subolivacea does refer to color. "in qua venae argentescentes litera tenuissima et composita constituunt" would seem to mean "in which silvery veins form a very thin, composite letter," but that doesn't make sense to me. If litera etc. are ablative, then these veins consist of a thin, composite letter, which is a bit better, although I would think the relationship would be the other way around, i.e. that the thin, composite letter would consist of the silvery veins. It's clear from the photographs what is being described, but it's hard to be certain of what is being said. If he considers these to be Chinese letters, would "composite" make more sense in that case? I don't really know what composite letters in the Roman alphabet would mean.
    Jerry Friedman's paraphrase

    "I'm sure there are people here who actually know Latin, but I think he's saying the forewings have a small, oval, sort of olive-colored spot in front of the center, in which the silvery veins form a very slender, composite letter. He says something similar but shorter at the beginning of his description."


    must be right, although the grammar of the Latin strikes me as confused. The briefer passage from Lepidoptera britannica p. 110 (alis niveis fascia abbreviata olivaceo-fusca, in qua literal tenuissima argentea, "snowy-winged with a small, dark olive-colored band in which [there is] a very small, silver letter") pretty well confirms what the longer one seems to be saying.


  17. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 26, 2015 @ 6:20 pm

    Thanks to you and your colleague for translating it and correcting my attempt. I'm glad to know I wasn't too far off.

    I wouldn't be surprised if confused Latin grammar were easy to find in scientific descriptions of organisms written in those centuries.

  18. Adrian said,

    January 27, 2015 @ 8:51 am

    The marking reminds me more of the white horse on the Berkshire Downs.

  19. Victor Mair said,

    January 29, 2015 @ 6:09 pm

    Good one, Adrian!

  20. Giles said,

    February 1, 2015 @ 2:24 pm

    Oddy enough I was reading "My family and other animals" today and came across this:

    " ‘Aha, now, this is rather interesting. You see this, um… little maggot-like thing? Now this is the larva of the China-mark moth. I think, as a matter of fact, you have got one in your collection. What? Well, they’re called China-mark moths because of the markings on the wing, which are said to resemble very closely marks that potters put on the base of, er… you know, very good china. Spode and so forth.’"

    Perhaps related?

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