Share |

On Six Legs by Tom Turpin - Butterflies


Did you ever wonder why butterflies are called butterflies? For one thing, they fly, and that explains the last part of the name. That is the same reason that many other insects such as dragonflies, fireflies, lanternflies and dobsonflies have “fly” in their names.

Even though these insects are called flies they are not really flies, according to scientists. Real flies are the insects that are classified in the order Diptera. There are hundreds of species of real flies in the world. House flies, deer flies, black flies, blowflies and mosquitoes are all real flies.

So why do butterflies have the word butter in their name? It apparently was partially associated with the time that the first of these scale-winged creatures appeared each year. At least in the temperate regions of the world, that time is the early spring.

Early spring was historically known in English-speaking parts of the world as the butter season. That is because new plant growth provided forage for grazing mammals such as cows, goats and sheep. Humans used milk from these animals to drink and make butter, so increasing milk supplies during the spring resulted in the time period being called the butter season. Hence, these insects were called flies of the butter season – or butterflies. The German word for butterfly shows a similar connection to milk. That word – Schmetterling – is based on the word for cream.

Some people have suggested that the yellow color of one of the first butterfly species to appear in spring might have contributed to the name as well. These yellow butterflies are generally known as alfalfa butterflies, because their caterpillars feed on legumes, including alfalfa. They are pest insects but the butterflies are still pretty. Their color could have been suggestive of homemade butter.

The name butterfly has not been an entirely adequate term for the one type of insect that most people admire. To prove this point, more than one cartoonist has produced a drawing of a stick of butter with wings to represent a butterfly.

Butterflies, with their large wings and beautiful colors, flutter throughout art, design, poetry and even music. So it is not surprising that a number of terms have surfaced to describe this genre of insects as something other than the product of a churn.

Leave it to the wordsmiths to come up with something better than butterfly for this type of insect. Because of the color of both butterflies and flowers, a comparison seems the thing to do. French lyric poet P. D. E. Lebrun wrote, “The butterfly is a flying flower.” In like manner, science-fiction writer R. H. Heinlein opined, “Butterflies are self-propelled flowers.” In his poem, “The Butterfly,” J. B. Tabb described these insects as, “Leafless, stemless, floating flower.” Robert Frost, in his poem “Blue-butterfly Day,” referred to butterflies as “sky flakes” and “flowers that fly.” Frost also connected butterflies and flowers in his poem “My Butterfly” with these words: “thy emulous fond flowers.”

It has been suggested that one of the early common names for butterflies might have actually been flutter-by. Such a term is descriptive of the way butterflies fly, or at least the way they fly when they are not in a hurry. Two unknown poets incorporated the flutter-by idea in the following lines, “Butterflies go fluttering by” and “Flutter by, butterfly, floating flower in the sky.”

Butterflies have also been called flappers. To most of us the word “flapper” is associated with the Roaring 20s when the term was used to describe young women of the time. These human flappers wore short skirts and bobbed their hair, mostly as a sign of rejection of the social standards.

Flapper as a name for women apparently is not related to use of the word to describe butterflies. However, there is one iconic image of that time period that incorporates both the human and insect flappers. This was a painting, “The Flapper,” by F. X. Leyendecker. The image adorned a Life magazine cover in 1922 and featured a flapper woman sporting antennae and swallowtail butterfly wings.

I don’t know about you, but I kind of like the name butterfly. It sure beats something like scale-winged, day-flying lepidopteran with knobbed antennae – the way that scientists describe butterflies!