How Did the Butterfly Get Its Name?
No, one knows for certain why butterflies are called “butterflies.” There are several theories, however. Some people believe the name came about because so many butterflies are the bright color of butter. Another possible explanation is that the name “butterfly” comes from “flutter by”, which suggests the insect’s fluttering flight.
Yet another idea is that the name grew out of an old belief that butterflies were witches in disguise! These butterflies (or witches in the shape of butterflies) stole milk and butter at night. Butterflies belong to the insect family, Lepidoptera, which means scaly wings.
In Old English the word was spelt ‘butterfloege’ and in Old Dutch and German it was ‘botervleig’ and ‘butterfliege’ respectively. These terms all translate as ‘butter fly’. Another German name ‘milchdieb’ means ‘milk-thief’ and may refer to the habit that butterflies once had of being attracted to buttermilk.
In eastern Europe where ancient farming methods have not died out, butterflies are still sometimes attracted to buttermilk being hand-churned in farmyards. In most other languages, butterflies are not known by a name that has anything to do with butter, which is why it’s all the more silly and funny that they have this very strange name in English!
Elsewhere in the world, butterflies are known by other names. In Spain and Latin America they are called mariposas. In Portugal they are borbolettas. To the French they are papillons. In Russia they are babochka and in Armenia teeternig. My favourites however are the Romanian flutturi (because butterflies are fluttery!), and the Nigerian olookolombooka (oh look – a lombooka!).