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The Word Guy: In these cases, etymology meets entomology

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By Rob Kyff
Friday, Oct. 4, 2013, 8:57 p.m.

Is a “butterfly” so called because it “flutters by”? Or, is its name derived from butter?

The first explanation — that people somehow transposed “flutter by” into “butter fly” — is charming and persuasive, but also untrue. “Butterfly” does derive from “butter” — but this is where things get, well, slippery.

Some experts believe the name comes from the butter-yellow color of the wings of many butterfly species. But others say it refers to the folk myth that butterflies steal butter, or to the yellow color of the butterfly's excrement. The exact origin has slipped through our (butter)fingers.

As etymology meets entomology, let's grab our butterfly nets and snare the origins of other insect names. Or, maybe we should call in a SWAT team.

Caterpillar: The French thought this fuzzy fellow looked like a hairy cat, so they called it a “chatepelose,” “chat” meaning “cat,” and “palose” meaning “hairy.”

Because the hungry insect stripped the bark off trees, English speakers changed the “palose” in “chatepelose” to “pillar,” from the verb “pill,” meaning “to strip, plunder or peel away.” So the French “chatepelose” became the English “caterpillar.”

Larva: The Latin word “larva” meant “mask.” Because it was believed that a caterpillar concealed or masked the butterfly within it, “larva” became a general term for the early life stage of some insects and other animals.

Tarantula: The ancient city of Tarentum, now Taranto, on the southeastern Italian seacoast was infested with fearsome, hairy spiders that delivered a nasty bite. So these scary creatures became known as “tarantulas.”

During the Middle Ages, a disease that caused a violent jerking of the limbs broke out across Europe. Erroneously attributing this affliction to the bite of the tarantula, people called it “tarantism”; (it's now known as “chorea”). People believed tarantism could be alleviated if its victims performed a vigorous dance, which they called a “tarantella.” By the 1700s, this style of dance had been standardized into a lively folk dance we still know by the same name.

Flea: If you've ever tried to catch a flea, you know how fast they jump away. In fact, the word “flea” ultimately derives from the Old High German “fliohan,” “to flee.”

Here's my favorite “flea/flee” story: A young boy, after listening to the Bible story in which Joseph is told “to take his family and flee into Egypt,” asks, “Whatever happened to the flea”?

Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Conn., invites your language sightings. Send reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, to or to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 Third St., Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

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