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Why are They Called "Butterflies"

By Rick Mikula

We received the following letter from Melody Dean with the most commonly-asked question:

My biology teacher just gave us an assignment to find out where the word "butterfly" came. He wanted to know why we call butterflies "butterflies" since they don't look like flying butter and they don't eat butter. While searching I came across your website and figured you might be able to help me. I'd be grateful if you could e-mail me your thoughts. Thanks, Melody Dean

... and our answer was ...

Melody, It depends on whom you would like to believe. The Anglo-Saxons used the word 'butterfloege' because their most common butterfly was the yellow brimstone butterfly. This English influence was brought to the new world. In the colonies, people claimed that at night witches would turn into winged creatures and steal butter. In other languages the butterfly's name means 'licker of milk' and milk thief. So maybe they were not off the mark. In Russia they're called 'babochka' or 'little soul'. The ancient Greeks called butterflies 'Psyche' which also means 'soul.' Many cultures feel that when we die our souls go to heaven as butterflies. In France they are called 'papillon.' Parking tickets are called 'papillon' too, because they are big pieces of yellow paper. When they are placed under a windshield wiper they flap like a big yellow butterfly. The Sioux Indians called butterflies 'fluttering wings'. There are other stories which are not as pleasant. The Dutch word for butterfly, describes the color of when they go to the bathroom. It is a yellow drop from something that flies. Rick Mikula

For a list of what butterflies are called in many languages, click HERE.

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