Word Connections: Butterfly & Ladybug

The time has come again to follow a twisty path of word connections across multiple languages. Today we start with the English words “butterfly” and “ladybug”, which have at least three things in common. First, both words refer to types of insects. Second, both insects are rather cute. And third, both names consist of compound words — that is, each word was created by combining two existing English words: “butter” + “fly” and “lady” + “bug”. (This contrasts with simple nouns such as “moth” or “roach”. And besides, we all enjoy butterflies and ladybugs much more than moths and roaches.) But this leads to two questions: First, how did these insects acquire these particular compound names? And second, do other European languages also use compound words for the same insects?

As we examine the two parts of the word “butterfly”, the “fly” part seems fairly obvious — because butterflies can fly. Furthermore, we are familiar with other insect names that incorporate the word “fly”, such as “dragonfly”, “horsefly”, and “housefly”. If we use the word “fly” as a verb, then we can refer to anything that soars through the air, such as a bird or an airplane. But if we use the word “fly” as a noun, then we are specifically referring to an insect. But how did “butter” become part of the word “butterfly”? What is the connection between butter and butterflies? Unfortunately, we do not know the answer for certain. However, there are several interesting hypotheses. One idea is that most butterflies in England were butter colored — that is, yellow or cream colored — and this led to the name. Another commonly mentioned possibility is that the name arose from the ancient belief that butterflies (or witches disguised as butterflies) would steal butter if it was left uncovered. This belief came from the observation that butterflies tend to hover around milk pails and butter churns.

The word “butterfly” comes to us from the Old English word buterflēoge. Even back then it was a compound word. The first part of the word came from Old English butere, which came from the Latin būtȳrum, which in turn came from the Greek boútȳron — all of which meant “butter”. In modern English there is a chemical compound named “butyric acid”, whose name is also derived from the Latin word. This compound is why rancid butter stinks — you can smell the butyric acid that forms as the butter ferments. The second part of the Old English word buterflēoge is flēoge, which is a noun that means any flying animal. (The verb form of the word is flēogan, which means “to fly”.) Over time both the noun and the verb changed to “fly”, and the meaning of the noun form of the word became narrower, covering only flying insects.

Although English was originally a Germanic language, the Germans have a different word for butterfly — Schmetterling, from the Middle German word smetern. The modern German word schmettern means “to smash”, but apparently smetern once meant “cream” in certain parts of Germany. As with the English word “butterfly”, the word is thought to have arisen due the tendency of butterflies to hover around milk pails and butter churns. And as with the English, there was a belief that the butterflies were perhaps witches in disguise, intending to steal the milk products.

In other European languages, the word for “butterfly” has no connection to butter. The Dutch word for butterfly is vlinder, a rare case where the English, Dutch, and German versions of a word are all quite different. The Scandinavian words are not consistent either. The Swedish word is fjäril, while the Danes and Norwegians use the word sommerfugl. This Danish/Norwegian term is another compound word, composed of sommer, which means “summer”, and fugl, which means “bird”. Therefore the literal meaning of sommerfugl is “summer bird”. If you consider that butterflies appear in the summer — never in winter — and that they fly around like birds, then the name makes sense.

The French word for butterfly is papillon, derived from the Latin word for butterfly, pāpiliō. In English, the word “papillon” refers to a breed of dog, so named because the ears are shaped somewhat like butterflies. The Italian word for butterfly is farfalla, also derived from the Latin pāpiliō, although less obviously so. (Note that both instances of “p” have become “f”.) The Italians — who invented many shapes for pasta, providing a colorful name for each — named one type of pasta farfalle. This is the plural form of farfalla, so the name of this pasta literally means “butterflies”. In English we sometimes use the word “farfalle” to refer to this same type of pasta. However, we are much more likely to call it “bow-tie pasta”, because we apparently see bow ties where Italians see butterflies!

The Spanish word for butterfly is mariposa, derived from the phrase Maria posa, which literally means “Maria rests”. This is a reference to Santa Maria, in English “Saint Mary” or “the Virgin Mary”. Apparently the sight of a resting butterfly was considered so beautiful as to inspire a religious comparison. (The sight of a resting butterfly is still awe-inspiring to many people around the world, regardless of what language they speak.) The Spanish word mariposa was therefore originally a compound word, consisting of two words joined together. The word “mariposa” is also sometimes encountered in English. For example, in the U.S., wildflowers in the genus Calochortus are called “mariposa lilies”.

We already saw that the French, Spanish, and Italian words for butterfly all look quite different, although the French and Italian words come from the same Latin origin. The Portuguese word for butterfly — borboleta — is also different, even though all four languages descended from Latin. The word borboleta is derived from the Latin belbellita, from the Latin bellus, which means “good” or “pretty”. So while the English and German words seem to associate butterflies with theft, the Portuguese and Spanish words associate butterflies with goodness and beauty.

The upshot is that there is an amazing diversity of words for “butterfly” across Western Europe. But this astounding diversity extends to Eastern Europe as well. This is especially noteworthy for the Slavic languages — such as Polish, Croatian, and Russian — where you would normally expect to find a lot of similarity across the languages. The Polish word for butterfly is motyl, which sounds just like the English word “motile”. (The word “motile” means “able to move itself”, which is certainly true of butterflies.) The Croatian word is leptir, which is similar to the word Lepidoptera, the scientific name for the group of species that includes butterflies and moths. The Russian word for butterfly is babochka (“бабочка”), which is also the Russian word for “bow tie” — because a bow tie is shaped like a butterfly. The word babochka is rather similar to another Russian word — babushka — an affectionate term for “grandmother”. Both words are derived from “baba” or “babka”, which means “woman” or “grandmother”.

The modern Greek word for butterfly is petalouda (“πεταλούδα”), derived from the ancient Greek word pétalon, which means “leaf”. The name arose because the wings of a butterfly resemble leaves. The English word “petal” can also be traced back to the Greek pétalon, because a flower petal is similar in shape to a leaf.

The larval stage of a butterfly is known in English as a “caterpillar”. This word entered English from the Old French word chatepelose, which literally means “hairy cat”. The word chatepelose is derived from the Latin phrase catta pilōsa, which really did mean “hairy cat”. Therefore “caterpillar” originated as a compound word, although the modern English word is not a true compound. (In English we recognize “cater” and “pillar” as legitimate words, but “caterpillar” is not connected to either of these words.) The modern French word for caterpillar is chenille, from the identical Old French word, which meant “little dog”. The modern French for dog (chien) has a similar origin to chenille. So it seems that the furry appearance of certain caterpillars reminded people (especially French people) of cats and dogs. In English we use the word “chenille” to refer to a velvety cord of silk, wool, or cotton, or to a fabric woven from such cords. Apparently the cords — a thick, fuzzy type of yarn — reminded people of caterpillars.

A caterpillar can mature into either a butterfly or a moth, depending upon the species. Butterflies and moths are closely related, and both are members of the order Lepidoptera. A person who studies butterflies is a lepidopterist. The name Lepidoptera is from the Greek words lepís and pterón. The word lepís means “scale”, while pterón means “wing or feather”. Butterflies and moths were given this name because the wings are covered with tiny scales. These scales can be brightly colored, providing many butterflies with their distinctive coloration.

Like the word “butterfly”, the word “ladybug” is a compound word that refers to a cute and popular insect. In English-speaking countries other than the U.S., the term “ladybird” is typically used instead of “ladybug”. Both are compound words, consisting of “lady” and a word for a flying creature. The reason for including the word “bug” in the American compound is self-evident — although some people would argue that this insect is actually a beetle, not a bug (in the strictest sense of the word). The word “bird” is easily explained if you know that the word could once be applied to any flying creature. (Compare this to the Danish sommerfugl, or “summer bird”, to mean butterfly.) But why was the word “lady” included? After all, as anyone who has watched the Pixar movie A Bug’s Life knows, ladybugs can be either male or female!

As it turns out, the “lady” in “ladybug” is the Virgin Mary. (In that regard, “ladybug” can be compared to “mariposa”, the Spanish word for butterfly, also named for the Virgin Mary.) The German word for ladybug is Marienkäfer, which means “Mary’s beetle” — again a reference to the Virgin Mary. Therefore the meaning behind the English and German words is essentially identical, even though the actual words are quite different. The use of the English word dates back to the 1690s. The exact reason for the name is not certain, but naming this insect for the Virgin Mary was certainly an expression of appreciation. Given that this insect gobbles up harmful aphids — thereby helping to save poor farmers from disaster — and given that the insect is also quite cute, it makes sense that it would be appreciated.

English and German are not the only languages where the word for “ladybug” refers to the Virgin Mary. In both Danish and Norwegian, the word for “ladybug” is marihøne, which literally means “Mary’s hen”. Calling this insect a “bird” seemed strange enough, but calling it a “hen”? Other than the connection with flying, the reason is not clear. The Spanish word for ladybug is mariquita, which is apparently also a reference to the Virgin Mary.

The Dutch word for ladybug is lieveheersbeestje, which is quite a mouthful to say. Like the English word “ladybug”, lieveheersbeestje is a compound word. The component parts of the word are lieve, which means “dear”, heers, which means lord or conqueror, and beestje, which means little animal or insect. So the literal meaning of lieveheersbeestje is “little animal of the Dear Lord”. So again we have a religious connection that expresses appreciation for this helpful insect.

The French word for ladybug is coccinelle, closely related to the scientific name for the ladybug family — Coccinellidae. Both words are ultimately derived from the Greek word kókkonis, which means “scarlet”. This, of course, is a reference to the bright red or orange color that most ladybugs exhibit. The word kókkonis in turn comes from the Greek kókkos, which means seed, berry, or gall (as in an oak gall). The Italian word for ladybug is coccinella, nearly identical to the French and from the same origin. In English we have the related word “cochineal”, a bright red dye made from scale insects that live on a Mexican species of cactus. The word does not come from the French coccinelle (ladybug), but from the French word cochenille (cochineal), which also traces back to the Greek word kókkonis, which of course means scarlet.

Several other European languages have words for ladybug that sound cute or interesting to English speakers. For example, the Croatian word is bubamara, the Polish word is biedronka, and the Swedish word is nyckelpiga. The Turkish term for ladybug — uç uç böceği — is especially fun to hear, because the first two words sound like “Ooch! Ooch!”

And so we conclude our journey through time and space to trace connections to the words “butterfly” and “ladybug”. More such journeys lie ahead, so be sure to check back often!

(This article is excerpted from an upcoming book by R. Philip Bouchard.)

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