Does the word butterfly derive from transposition of word order, i.e., "flutter by"? Several dictionaries that I looked this up in so long ago that I've forgotten which ones, said either "origin unknown" or referred to butter, or German or Dutch words for butter, which doesn't seem to make sense, in that butterflies seek to ingest flower nectar, not butter.


Concerning the etymology of 'butterfly', several theories have been proposed. Ernest Adams in Notes and Queries, 1876, first observes that the second element of the word poses no particular etymological difficulties, then ably summarizes the theories:

The following theories have been advanced. Skinner writes, "nobis sic dictus ob levitatem fere butyraceam alarum hujus animalculi," because its wings are as smooth as butter. An earlier authority, Kilian (Etym. Teut. Ling., 1605), imagines that it was so called from the fact that its excrement resembled butter; basing his theory doubtless upon one of the Dutch names mentioned above. And this theory has been sanctioned by one of our ablest philologists, Mr. Wedgwood. Grimm suggests that the name was given, "weil man glaubte dass Schmetterline, oder Hexen in deren Gestalt, Milch und Butter stälen," because "they, or witches in their shape, stole milk and butter." Another theorist would explain the name by the fact (?) that butterflies are of the colour of butter, and yet another because the insects appear at the time when butter is made.

Adams (an amateur lepidopterist), then continues:

All these theories are felt both by the philologist and the lepidopterist to be eminently unsatisfactory. ... As one who loves these insects, I may perhaps be pardoned if I venture to add one more speculation to the unsatisfactory roll.

I find Adams' "speculation" more consistent and plausible than any of the other theories proposed. It is as shown in the following clip:

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    Fascinating. So in short, "buda" quite simply means grub or larvae, and the schmetterling is a flying one of those - ingenious and straightforward. {Just regarding "buda", indeed quite simply "bug" is suggested to be possibly from "buda", by some etymological notes on it.} Thanks for this. – Fattie Jun 10 '16 at 12:25
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    @JoeBlow, the Promptorium Parvulorum ("The first English-Latin Dictionary", 1440) shows "Budde of a tree," glossed as Latin "gemma", then the next entry is "Budde flye", with no gloss. I don't know quite what to make of that. I'm not alone: the text is often rendered "Budde, flye", with a comma silently inserted by later editors. That's a short 'u' in 'budde'. – JEL Jun 11 '16 at 9:20
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    Good Lord! TBC "Flye" is not particularly a Latin word, right? (ie, it's unlikely they were saying "english Budde -> latin Flye"). What a mystery. – Fattie Jun 11 '16 at 12:24
  • @JoeBlow, No, not surprisingly, a search of all the Perseus Latin text (including dictionaries) doesn't turn up 'flye' or 'fly'. Also, the font used (sans, small caps; e.g., Albert Way ed., 1843) indicates the whole is considered a headword by that editor. – JEL Jun 11 '16 at 17:18
  • OK. so the author was just stating "Budde flye" is a word or term; and giving no definition, no gloss. But it's right next to "budde of a tree" so it makes us think they are buddes all together; in that era the word to them was budde-flying. Wow. – Fattie Jun 11 '16 at 17:24

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