The Word Guy: In these cases, etymology meets entomology
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”?
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Man charged with playing doctor for free Nemacolin stay
- Steelers cornerback Taylor ready to swap earpiece for helmet
- Steelers’ lookahead: New Orleans Saints
- No quick fixes for Penn State’s struggling offense
- Cancer didn’t stop mother from living for her son
- DUI checkpoints take on dangerous drivers
- Penguins notebook: Bennett status remains fluid
- Ehrhoff finding his way with Penguins
- 2 FBI agents shot, wounded in St. Louis area
- Steelers notebook: Defense tasked with stopping Graham
- No. 15 San Diego State hammers Pitt, 74-57