In a comment earlier this year about the word ilusión/illusion I mentioned Chuang-Tzu’s dream about being a butterfly. Now, it’s not at all obvious that the English word butterfly is related to anything in Spanish, but it is. Before pursuing that connection, though, let me put to rest the folk etymology (i.e. false etymology) that claims butterfly is a rearrangement of the elements of flutterby. It’s true enough that butterflies do flutter by, but that’s a happy coincidence that has nothing to do with the origin of the term: butterfly really is just a combination of butter and fly. One hypothesis holds that butter was a reference to the yellow color of many types of butterflies. The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology mentions the German term milchdieb ‘milk thief,’ so perhaps butterflies were believed to be attracted to—and may actually be attracted to—dairy products.

As for butter itself, English took it from Latin butyrum. That had come from Greek bouturon, a compound of bous ‘cow’ and turos ‘cheese,’ so butter was conceived as a kind of ‘cow cheese.’ And now you may have seen the connection to Spanish: Greek bous was a cognate of Latin bos, with stem bov-, that evolved to Spanish buey ‘ox.’ So butterfly and buey, two animals of very different heft, color, and ways of moving, are related words.

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    Jul 08, 2012 @ 14:29:42

    Interesting, too, that so many butterflies are associated with milkweed.

    As for “flutterby” – that was my word of choice as a child. Mom told me I’d get really frustrated when they’d try to correct me. I’d patiently explain that it had to be flutterby, because butter couldn’t fly.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jul 08, 2012 @ 16:50:03

      I think your childhood explanation was excellent, worthy of a logician. You’ve reminded me that several decades ago there was an art gallery in New York called A Bird Can Fly but a Fly Can’t Bird. (I now see that that was a takeoff on a line by A.A. Milne: “A fly can’t bird, but a bird can fly.”)

      And yes, many butterflies use milkweeds for host plants, as do some species of bugs.


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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