Why Butterflies Fascinate Us

Compiled by Sharon Peregrine Johnson

“[W]e need butterflies to remind us that positive change is possible, that there is magic to life, and that we have to be mindful of our surroundings, because if we destroy nature, we destroy ourselves. Butterflies awaken our spirits and open our hearts. They give us a sense of hope and the possibility of our own transformation and evolution” [Manos-Jones].

The Word Butterfly

Researchers and experts differ on the origin of the word butterfly.

  • One common yet erroneous explanation for this word's origin is that it comes from flutterby. What we do know, instead, is that this word is very old (pre-8th century). It was originally buturfliogæ, a compound of butere `butter' and fleoge `fly.' Why butter? Some suggest that it was due to many butterflies being yellow in color, like butter. Others believe it is based upon the yellow excrement of butterflies. Still others hold to the notion that butterflies were thought to land in kitchens and drink milk or butter left uncovered (this, interestingly, is supported by a German word for butterfly, milchdieb `milk-thief').” [Take Word].
  • Schappert states that the English common name did "originate from the relatively simple combination of 'butter' and 'fly,' there's a written old English citation for buttorfleoge , but the literal origin is lost. Some sources have erroneously suggested that the excrement of butterflies is thought to resemble butter. The problem with this, of course, is that other than to void excess water, butterflies do not excrete! Caterpillars do because they are the active growing stage, although a simple consideration of what they eat will make you wonder why anyone would consider that it , commonly called frass, resembled butter!" [ Schappert].
  • "More likely origins include considering the that males of the common brimstone butterfly (Gonepteryx rhamni , Pieridae) of England are butter-colored, or that, as author Samuel Jackson suggested, butterflies and the churning of butter are the simultaneous harbingers of spring, or that the word derives from the old myth that witches and fairies stole butter in the night, in the form of butterflies" [ Schappert].

Butterfly in other language

William O. Beeman from the Department of Anthropology at Brown University graciously gave permission for us to post his list butterfly in other languages.

Afrikaans schrlink, skoenlapper
Albanian flutur
Arabic farasha
Arabic, Algerian bu frtutu
Baagandji (New South Wales, Australia) bilyululijga
Basque txipilota, pinpilinpauxa
Bengali prajapathi
Bulgarian peperuda
Cantonese woo deep
Cheyenne hevavahkema
Czech mot"l
Danish sommerfugl
Djingli (Australian N.T.) marlimarlirni
Dutch vlinder
Estonian liblikas
Finnish perhonen
French papillon
Gaelic dear badan-de, seillean-de
German Schmetterling
Greek petalou'da
Hawaiian pulelehua
Hebrew parpar
Hindi titli
Hungarian lepke (fig.), pillango (insect)
Icelandic fithrildi
Indonesian kupu kupu
Irish feileacan
Italian farfalla
Japanese choochoo
Javanese kupu
Korean navi
Latin papilio
Latvian tauriuö
Lithuanian peteliöke
Malay kupukupu/ramarama
Mandarin huudye
Maori pulelehua
Navaho ho'o neno
Ngaju Dayak (Indonesia) kakupo
Norwegian sommerfugl
Persian parvaneh
Polish motyl
Portuguese borboleta
Rumanian fluturi
Russian babochka
Serbo-Croatian leptir
Spanish mariposa
Swahili kipepeo
Swazi luvivane
Swedish fjril
Thai pi sugnya
Tok Pisin (New Guinea) bataplai, bembe
Trukese: nipwisipwis
Tshiluba (Zaire) bulubulu
Turkish kelebek
Vietnames bayboum
Welsh pili pala/bili bala, glowyn byw, ar fach yr haf, plyfyn bach yr haf
Zulu uvevane


  • Johnson, S. P. (2004). Tawny Emperor photo.
  • Manos-Jones, M. (2000). The spirit of butterflies: Myth, magic, and art. New York: Henry N. Abrams.