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Why are butterflies called butterflies? It's a simple enough name, and the butterfly is a simple, beautiful animal. But where does the name butterfly come from?

A weekly show where we endeavor to answer one of your big questions. This week, "MadeofAwesome4ever" asks, "I've heard that butterflies were once called 'flutterbys', and that people mishearing/mispronouncing it changed it to 'butterfly'. is this true? If not, why are butterflies called 'butterflies'?”
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Hi, I'm Craig. I used to be a caterpillar, but since then I have blossomed into a beautiful butterfly, and this is Mental Floss on YouTube. Today I'm going to answer MadeofAwesome4ever's big question: I've heard that butterflies were once called flutterbys, and that people, mishearing/mispronouncing it, changed it to butterfly. Is this true? If not, why are butterflies called butterflies?

The fact that butterflies were once called flutterbys is a popular story, but like many popular stories, it's not true. So today I'm going to tell you where the word butterfly did come from. Let's get started.


So the word butterfly evolved from these two words (Buttorfleoge and Boterflye) from Middle English and Old English. As you can see the spelling is varied but it's pretty hard to argue that they were ever called flutterbys. Except for in the book The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles by Julie Andrews but that's probably not what you meant.

Experts aren't totally sure why the insects were initially given the name though. Some believe it's because the butterflies have wings that are the color of butter but most people dismiss this theory on account of it being really dumb 'cause there are many butterflies that have many different colors. They're not all the yellow butterflies.

A more fun explanation is found in the Oxford Dictionary as most fun explanations are. It claims that the English word was actually a translation from the Dutch word for butterfly. The word (Boterschijte) literally translates to "butter s**t". That's fun! Apparently as the Dutch were observing butterfly excrement, as I often do, they realized it looked like butter.

A final explanation is that people believed that witches used to turn themselves into butterflies. Then they would track down and eat dairy products like butter. I'm not saying that Paula Deen is a witch but this is some pretty good evidence.

English isn't the only language that has interesting ways of describing butterflies. The Ancient Greek word for butterfly (Psyche) was a synonym for soul. The Latin word (Papilio) gave us the term "pavilion" because a large tent looks like wings. And the Russian word (Babochka) can also mean bow tie. I know I didn't say the other words but I want to say that one. Can I say that one? Babochka!

Thanks for watching Mental Floss on YouTube, made with the help of these babochkas. If you have a big question of your own, leave it in the comments below. Hope you fly on by next week.