"Butterfly" words as a source of etymological confusion

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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 [1951], 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 ).

Variants: ‎(*l̥eːp), 胡蝶, 蛺蝶 ‎(*kep l’ep), 蛺蜨 ‎(*kep sep), representing different developments from the proto-form, including disyllabification, fricativisation of the voiceless initial, etc.

Cognates from the same word family:

  • ‎(*lep, leaf)
  • ‎(*l’eːp, flatfish, plaice)
  • > ‎(*l’eːp, plate)
  • ‎(*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”))
  • (nip, “leaf”) (Modern (ip, “ip”))
  • 넙치 (neopchi, “flatfish”),

similarly derived from a similar-shaped adjective root 넙다 (nep-, “to be wide, flat”) (Modern 넓다 (neolda, “neol(p)-”)).

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]


  1. Chips Mackinolty said,

    January 28, 2016 @ 8:07 am

    I apologise, this is one of the variations on the butterfly joke. But it is pretty good vis a vis above discussion. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kca4kfn9iEw

  2. Nick Kaldis said,

    January 28, 2016 @ 9:21 am

    As long as we're adding interesting facts about the word "butterfly", it is–or was, for my 94-year-old father's generation–a modern Greek slang term for "homosexual".

  3. DE said,

    January 28, 2016 @ 9:26 am

    Another interesting coincidence along the same lines: the Hungarian word for butterfly is 'lepke', '-ke' being the diminutive suffix. Unfortunately I'm separated from my books and can't look up the etymology…

  4. jhh said,

    January 28, 2016 @ 9:51 am

    So– the theory I had heard that "butterfly" involved a metathesis, from "flutter-by," is just silliness?

  5. Doctor Science said,

    January 28, 2016 @ 9:58 am

    Lepidoptera includes both butterflies and moths. Which of the "butterfly" words you've discussed refer only to butterflies, and which include moths (esp. silkworm)?

  6. leoboiko said,

    January 28, 2016 @ 12:20 pm

    I don't recall who it was who noted that the words for "butterfly" somehow seem to be particularly beautiful across languages: https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/butterfly#Translations (click "Translations" to expand). Words like butterfly, papillon or mariposa are well-known; but we have such pretty forms as afafranto, farfett, labalábá, pojoaque, pinpilinpauxa, balafenn, fīfrildi, volvoreta, serurubele, kimimila, pili-pala…

    A glance gives me the impression of a lot of reduplication, vowels, continuants, sonorants, etc. I guess there's some degree of sound symbolism involved.

  7. Neil Dolinger said,

    January 28, 2016 @ 12:24 pm

    Dr. Mair,
    How do we think the Middle Chinese *lep and *l’eːp were pronounced? I note that the MSM pronunciation for the first character is yè, while it is dié for the other three, and wonder whether the sound changes from MC to MSM are predictable

  8. Eidolon said,

    January 28, 2016 @ 12:33 pm

    Quite an ancient etymology for 蝶 in Sino-Tibetan, but what about 蝴? I can't think of any reason for this addition: none of the cognates listed have it, and none of the early definitions for 胡 would justify combining with a root for "leaf" to form a description of butterflies.

  9. JS said,

    January 28, 2016 @ 12:37 pm

    I think Sun Jingtao addresses the word hudie 'butterfly' in his work on Old Chinese progressive reduplication and maybe elsewhere, but can't confirm this impression at the moment.

    At any rate, I want to point out that instead of an old cluster we might see a reduplicative form here. In fact, the early variation between *go-lep and *kep-lep might be nicely explained as the differential results of what Sun calls "fission" and "progressive" reduplication both operating on a base *gep/*kep.

    (that is, the syllable lep is perhaps only a product of the morphological reduplicative process in both cases — the former "syllable splitting" device remains common in modern Sinitic; the latter OC reduplication CV[C] > CV[C]-lV[C] is called "progressive" by Sun since it results in a following [generally liquid initial] echo syllable)

    I think Sun has said this much… what he may not have said is that it makes a great deal of sense to associate this base g/kep with the word 夹 ‘pinch together, etc.' (and similar words 合 and others), perhaps referring to the butterfly's wings at rest?

  10. Victor Mair said,

    January 28, 2016 @ 1:11 pm

    From Juha Janhunen:

    Estonian liblikas (pronounced liplikkas), Hungarian lepke (pronouced läpkä).

  11. Victor Mair said,

    January 28, 2016 @ 1:17 pm

    For 夹, see Victor H. Mair, "Phonosymbolism or Etymology: The Case of the Verb 'Cop'”, Sino-Platonic Papers, 91 (Jan., 1999), 1-28. Free pdf.

  12. Jeroen Mostert said,

    January 28, 2016 @ 1:44 pm

    @Nick Kaldis: it's the same in Spanish — *mariposa*, aside from simply meaning "butterfly", can also refer to a gay man.

    As for the Dutch angle: *boterschijtje* still has some currency in parts of Flanders, but *vlinder* is the general word. There are many other buttery synonyms no longer in general use (if any use) — one source mentions *boterkapel*, *botervlieg*, *boterdrijver*, *botervlinder*, *boterwijf*, *boterwrijver* and connects all of these to the folk belief of cream-stealing, shapeshifting witches. There's no reason to focus on the *shit* part specifically other than the fact that it's a naughty word.

  13. julie lee said,

    January 28, 2016 @ 3:01 pm

    @Eidolon , "Quite an ancient etymology for 蝶 in Sino-Tibetan, but what about 蝴? "

    I think the question is answered by Victor Mair in his post above, that Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM) hudie (hu die) 蝴蝶 "butterfly" comes

    "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)."

    That is, in Old Chinese 蝴蝶 "butterfly" has the inferred sound *ga-lep. This explains hu 蝴 in MSM hudie 蝴蝶 "butterfly", because , if I'm not mistaken, the Old Chinese sound-element 胡 in 蝴 is *ka (according to Schuessler and other phonologists). In the character hu 蝴, 胡 is the sound-element and 虫 is the meaning-element. 虫 means "insect", and is used as a meaning-element here. The character 蝴 (hu) has a meaning-element, or classifier, 虫, and a sound-element 胡 because the butterfly is an insect and the character 胡 is the sound of the character 蝴 。 It seems 85% of Chinese characters are formed with a sound-element and a meaning-element, which are hints as to the sound and meaning of the character.

  14. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 28, 2016 @ 3:52 pm


    I don't recall who it was who noted that the words for "butterfly" somehow seem to be particularly beautiful across languages: https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/butterfly#Translations (click "Translations" to expand). Words like butterfly, papillon or mariposa are well-known; but we have such pretty forms as afafranto, farfett, labalábá, pojoaque, pinpilinpauxa, balafenn, fīfrildi, volvoreta, serurubele, kimimila, pili-pala…

    I suspect "pojoaque" is an error. It's ascribed to Tewa, so it must refer to Pojoaque Pueblo, which I drive through every work day. However, "Pojoaque" is generally said to be a hispanicization of "P'osuwaegeh" 'water drinking place', as in this book. ("Geh", meaning 'place', is one of the two or three Tewa morphemes I know, since it shows up in a lot of place names.) Pojoaque Pueblo does have several things named after butterflies, such as an annual footrace, but I can't find anything else saying that's the etymology of the name.

  15. Jimbino said,

    January 28, 2016 @ 4:46 pm

    "I've started buying English etymology books for my 8-year-old daughter and I to explore" translated into Standard Amerikan English would read "I've started buying English etymology books for my 8-year-old daughter and me to explore."

  16. J. W. Brewer said,

    January 28, 2016 @ 5:14 pm

    I was hoping "Iron Butterfly" might sound interesting in various other languages, but a check of non-English wikipedia pages suggests alas that it tends to get merely transliterated (as e.g. Айрън Бътърфлай orアイアン・バタフライ), and not even calqued.

  17. Jichang Lulu said,

    January 28, 2016 @ 5:57 pm


    Sun Jingtao's 1999 thesis (p. 149) does indeed propose 蝴蝶 OC (Zhengzhang) *gaa lheeb from 挟 (a butterfly's wings repeat the action signalled by 挟 *(s)kaab), or alternatively from 夹 *kreeb (a stationary butterfly "looks like a set of tweezers or pincers").

    Sun's view is that 'butterfly' and other so-called 嵌L词 qián L cí (disyllabic monomorphemic OC words where the second syllable beings with *l-) were derived from monosyllables by inserting an *l-, a procedure he calls 'fission reduplication' and to which he attributes 'specialisation' semantics.

    The alternative analysis is that words like 'butterfly' come from monosyllables with initial clusters (*gl-, say), or from sesquisyllabic words (something like *g(ɘ)l-). This is discussed in Jian Li's thesis.

    There's suggestive evidence for parallel mono- and sesquisyllabic variants of the same words. Wolfgang Behr discusses quite a few here.

    Sagart discusses a passage in the Shijing (Xiao ya 3, 5 (179)) where the Mao commentary claims 不惊 'not attentive' actually means 惊 'attentive' (for Sagart, the 不 represents the sound of a sesquisyllabic prefix). This would be Chinese's answer to the adage that in Sanskrit every word has a meaning and the opposite [and a sexual position, and 'elephant'].

    There's also a paper by Marjorie Chan (can't locate it at the moment) that mentions modern Cantonese forms like 胳肋(底) (Jyutping kaak3 laak6 (dai2)) 'armpit', possibly from a clustered or sesquisyllabic 胳 (Zhengzhang *klaag).

    That's all very nice, but when it comes to 'butterfly' specifically I don't know of a convincing etymology with an initial cluster to account for the 蝴 part.

  18. Victor Mair said,

    January 28, 2016 @ 7:14 pm

    Ralph Rosen kindly sent me a scan of ch. V, "Butterflies, Moths and Wood-boring Larvae", from Ian C. Beavis, Insects and Other Invertebrates in Classical Antiquity (Exeter: University of Exeter, 1988), pp. 121-154.

    For me, the most interesting part of this detailed and thorough chapter has to do with the production of silk by the inhabitants of the island of Cos (in the southeastern Aegean Sea), described already in Aristotle (384-322 BC), and they were likely using Pachypasa otus (Drury), not Bombyx mori Linn. like the Chinese.

  19. Victor Mair said,

    January 28, 2016 @ 7:48 pm

    From Douglas Adams:

    The Tocharian B word MAY be yauyek (used metaphorically for a bifold case for sending a message whose [Tang] Chinese name was hudie-zhuang 'butterfly book.' The Tocharian word looks possibly to be borrowed from Khotanese yyauvaka- 'butterfly.') The best we can say for certain is that yauyek is some kind of document.

    Wikipedia note on húdié zhuāng 蝴蝶裝 ("butterfly binding"):


    The earliest known form of bookbinding in China is "butterfly binding" (Chinese: 蝴蝶裝), which was invented during the Song Dynasty (around 1000 C.E.). Single-printed folio pages were pasted together and folded in a stack, creating a book in which pairs of printed pages alternated with blank ones.


    Images here.

  20. Adrian Bailey said,

    January 28, 2016 @ 8:43 pm

    For DE, here's a scan of the entry for lepke in Zaicz. https://dadge.wordpress.com/2016/01/29/lepke/

  21. Steve Morrison said,

    January 28, 2016 @ 8:58 pm

    A post which combines etymology with entomology!

  22. JS said,

    January 28, 2016 @ 11:31 pm

    @Jichang Lulu

    Ah, thanks; my recollection was indeed incomplete. As you say, Sun mentions both 夹 and 挟 as possible roots for a "fission" derivation, with a reasonable-seeming preference for the latter. He also mentions *keplep 蛺蝶 from the SW, so hardly needs to say that this looks like it could be a "progressive" reduplication from the same root.

    I remembered Prof. Mair's paper above as a warning against overzealous application of the idea of sound symbolism… in this case, perhaps there is something to it in Chinese at least (KVP = close up, join together), or maybe there are better traditional etymological solutions.

  23. January First-of-May said,

    January 29, 2016 @ 6:07 am

    The Russian word for "butterfly" is бабочка (babochka), traditionally said to be related to баба (baba) meaning "old woman, grandmother". Supposedly the ancient Slavs believed that the spirits of old women became butterflies after the women died.

    Incidentally, on the Indo-European etymology of "leaf": the Zompist page about the problems of comparative etymology (i.e. why Greenberg-style language comparisons should not necessarily work) mentions that, supposedly, the native English cognate of "loot" (a word borrowed from Hindi) is "leaf".
    Is that true? As far as I could figure out (IIRC, mostly by checking Wiktionary, though it was several years ago), the words "loot" and "leaf" apparently descend from two different Indo-European roots (though quite similar both in sound and in meaning), and the actual English cognate of "loot" is "rip".

  24. Victor Mair said,

    January 29, 2016 @ 7:39 am

    @January First-of-May

    Both in terms of sound and of meaning, it seems highly improbable that "loot" and "leaf" are etymologically related. I'm surprised that anyone would assert that they came from the same root. What you say in your final paragraph makes sense, but what you relate from the Zompist page in your penultimate paragraph is hard to credit.

    From the Online Etymology Dictionary:


    "goods taken from an enemy, etc.," 1788, Anglo-Indian, from Hindi lut, from Sanskrit loptram, lotram "booty, stolen property," from PIE *roup-tro-, from root *reup- "to snatch" (see rip (v.)).


    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").

  25. Rodger C said,

    January 29, 2016 @ 8:36 am

    Surely the exact reflex of *reup- is "reave"?

  26. Victor Mair said,

    January 29, 2016 @ 9:23 am

    Schuessler, as cited in the o.p., has the following interesting note (with minor typographical modifications):


    jiádié 蛺蝶 *kêp-lêp
    'Butterfly' [Yupian] is a variant of húdié (Bodman). The first syllable is glossed 'butterfly' in SW, it survives in Y-Guǎngzhōu kapD1 'butterfly', -> Jap. kai derives from *kapi (Bodman 1980: 146).

    ST: The TB forms vary: Lepcha ha-kljóp 'a species of butterfly, Buprestis bicolor'….


    The second syllable of the Lepcha word does have the sort of consonant cluster reconstructed (quoting Wiktionary) in the o.p. as a possible protoform for the second syllable of húdié 蝴蝶, i.e., the root sans prefix.

    I'm wondering if Sun Jingtao's conjectures about 夹 and 挟 might have been inspired by the existence of jiádié 蛺蝶. Incidentally, online reference works (Wikipedia, Wiktionary, zdic) define 蛺蝶 as "nymphalid", a particular type of butterfly.

    P.S.: I wrote the above before going back and rereading JS's second comment, where he notes that Sun does indeed mention *keplep 蛺蝶 from the SW.

  27. languagehat said,

    January 29, 2016 @ 9:43 am

    Another interesting coincidence along the same lines: the Hungarian word for butterfly is 'lepke', '-ke' being the diminutive suffix. Unfortunately I'm separated from my books and can't look up the etymology…

    It's probably from a Uralic *lëppᴈ (compare Finnish liippo).

    Many years ago I did a post on butterfly words, and one of the many examples provided by commenters was Wolof lëpp-lëpp bi, which is also startlingly similar to *lep.

  28. Willem de Reuse said,

    January 29, 2016 @ 11:39 am

    Just a clarification about the Dutch word that looks like butter + shit. That was recorded in Middle Dutch as boterschitte, and still exists in the West-Flemish dialects as butterschijte or boterschijte. (West Flemish has been ordained as a separate language by Ethnologue (called "Vlaams"), and indeed it is not mutualy intelligible with Standard Dutch (but so are many other dialects of the officially Dutch-speaking area of Belgium)). The term does not exist in Standard Dutch, and seems to be limited to some varieties of West-Flemish only. Interestingly, it does not seem like *botervlieg exists anywhere in the Dutch-speaking area. For more info, see the following link.


    Yeah, it's in Dutch, but hey, we're linguists, aren't we?

  29. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 29, 2016 @ 4:31 pm

    Quoted by Victor Mair from Axel Schuessler:

    ST: The TB forms vary: Lepcha ha-kljóp 'a species of butterfly, Buprestis bicolor'….

    Not to keep popping up with pointless pedantry about boring bugs, but Buprestis is not a butterfly but a genus in the family Buprestidae, the metallic wood-boring beetles. Here's a picture. I think it's now known as Chrysochroa bicolor or Megaloxantha bicolor. Google Images finds many photos under the latter name; here's one showing how bicolored it is.

  30. Mark said,

    January 29, 2016 @ 4:48 pm

    Maybe it started as "pa-pa-pa" or "pa-pa-fa" mimicry and was recerse engineered into something that sounded like real English words.

  31. Tuskar Rock said,

    January 29, 2016 @ 7:49 pm

    féileacán/peidhleachán (Irish)
    feileacan (Scottish Gaelic)
    foillycan, follican (Manx)
    pili-pala (Welsh)
    balafenn (Breton)
    tykki Duw (Cornish)

  32. Rohan Fenwick said,

    January 29, 2016 @ 10:37 pm

    @leoboiko, I remember Larry Trask making mention of sound-symbolism with reference to the butterfly in his Key Concepts in Language and Linguistics, but he only mentioned two Basque names, tximeleta and pinpilinpauxa, as examples of such phonaesthemes. A bit of dictionary trolling yields similar presence of either liquids or labials or both in virtually every language I could find, though, regardless of geographic location or linguistic relationship:

    Akkadian kurmittu, kuršiptu
    Burushaski hoólalas, tatápalas
    Ch'ol pejpem
    Georgian p'ep'ela
    Igbo ùlùkòm̀bụbā, ùlùmàkụmā
    Maasai ɔ-sampúrimpúrì
    Nama gurlabes, hūlabes
    Tanacross laalêel
    Tarahumara nacarópari
    Ubykh χep’ráɕʷ(e)
    Wari' terereʔ
    Yanyuwa a-kurlambimbi
    Yatzachi Zapotec marinquə'
    It seems to be pretty clearly related to a fairly universal phonaesthesia of the act of flying or fluttering (PIE *plewk– 'to fly', Proto-Kartvelian par-, Proto-North-West Caucasian *pər-, and no doubt many other language families I'm not familiar with). For what it's worth, Tolkien had similar thoughts: the words for "butterfly" in his invented languages are wilwarin (Quenya) and gwilwileth (Sindarin), and they come from a Proto-Elvish verb root *WIL 'to fly' that also serves as the basis for a range of words in both Quenya and Sindarin to do with the air.

  33. Alistair Ian Blyth said,

    January 30, 2016 @ 4:56 am

    Romanian: fluture 'butterfly', Albanian fluturë 'butterfly'. The Romanian Academy's, Dicționarul explicativ al limbii române (2nd edition, 2009) gives the etymology: Latin *flutulus, but does not give the verb from which this presumably derives: fluito (contr. fluto), to float, swim, sail, move with the water, flutter in the wind. The Romanian Academy dictionary posits that the verb flutura 'to flutter, flap' derives from the noun fluture. Conversely, H. Tiktin (Rumänisch-Deutsches Wörterbuch, 1915) claims that the noun fluture derives from the verb flutura, which he derives from *flutulo, -are, from fluto. Tiktin remarks on the curious phonetic resemblance of flutura to the German flattern (older: flotteren) and English flutter.

    Cf. also Romanian fluturaș 'flier' (in the sense of a small advertising handbill).

  34. Jerry Clough said,

    January 30, 2016 @ 9:04 am

    A number of slightly disconnected observations:

    No-one has mentioned the possibility that butterfly may have evolved into a generic term from a specific one. The Brimstone, Gonyopterx rhamni, is a butterfly widespread across temperate parts of the Old World. The male is butter coloured, the female paler. See for instance Mark Cocker in Bugs Britannica, but also Wikipedia. Probably the best source of information is The Aurelian Legacy

    Many butterflies dont feed at all as adults and dont defecate. It takes reasonably good observational powers to spot butterfly shit from those that. Us entomologists prefer the more delicate term "frass" (etymological origins not known to me, but possibly German).

    The OED & its digital successor are not very reliable documents for definitions of terms relating to Natural History. I don't have access to hand, but last time I look the description of the common House Sparrow had obviously not been revised from the initial definition, and the terminology would have been obsolete perhaps 100 years ago.

    Vernacular names of animals and plants are surprisingly plastic, and this despite their potential importance as sources of food and medicine, information on the seasons, and pests. For instance many common Welsh names for birds on the site of the National Museum of Wales, just didn't exist in the mid-1800s. Some obvious examples Robin Coch and Titw Tomas-las being back-formations from English.

  35. Gunnar H said,

    January 31, 2016 @ 10:47 am

    @Jerry Clough:

    Your suggestion on the origin of "butterfly" is asserted here (a website run by official Danish language authorities):

    Det sidste ord, butterfly, indeholder samtidig nogle interessante betydningsskift: først på engelsk fra det bogstavelige 'smør-flue' til en ("smørgul") 'citronsommerfugl' og så generaliseret til enhver slags 'sommerfugl'; og så som låneord på dansk til to afledte betydninger; et 'bindeslips i sommerfuglefacon' og en 'svømmestil med armene i position som sommerfuglevinger'.

    In free translation: "This latter word, butterfly, also contains some interesting shifts in meaning: first in English, from the literal 'butter-fly' to the ('butter-colored') Gonepteryx rhamni [in Danish literally 'lemon butterfly'] and then generalized to any kind of butterfly, and then as a loan-word in Danish with two derived senses: a 'necktie tied butterfly-fashion' [i.e. a bow tie] and a 'swimming style with the arms positioned like butterfly wings.'"

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