Sunday, 9 September 2012

Butterflies and Moths – the viewpoint of an etymologist, not an entomologist

In Britain there are some three thousand species of lepidoptera, eighty-five per cent of which are moths. For many years the mere mention of a fritillary or skipper has piqued my interest, just why were such unusual names chosen to describe moths and butterflies?

Clearly with such a vast array of these insects the etymologies of all of them cannot be covered in a single article. Hence we shall look at the most common and the families or groups. Indeed the vast majority of the names include a colour or shape, which require little or no explanation. Examples include the swallowtails, however the hairstreaks are also quite easy to explain, the fine stripes beneath the wings giving them their collective name.

Argus was a character in Greek mythology with a hundred eyes, the argus butterflies are typically brown and have wings with very eye-like spots. Fritillary is derived from a word in Modern Latin referring to 'dice box', this is most likely a reference to the wing spots, said to resemble the spots on dice. Brimstones are named for their colour, they are predominantly yellow.

Peacocks are butterflies named for the four eye-like spots on the wings which very much resemble those 'eyes' on the splendid tale of the male bird with which it shares its name. With a shape underneath the hind wings, the comma butterfly takes its name from the spots said to resemble such punctuation. Ghost Moths get their name from the display flight of the male, hovering in a display area with other males and sometimes slowly rising and falling in what is seen as typical ghostly behaviour. These are also referred to as part of the Swift group of moths, rather obviously speaking of their comparatively speedy flight.

Leopard moths take their name from the wing spots, although none resemble those of the big cat. Festoon moths have patterns which resemble a festoon, a string or chain of flowers, ribbons, leaves, etc. Hornet moths are named for their yellow stripes. Clearwings have just that, although faintly patterned would be a more accurate description.`

Another group are the foresters, which generally speaking enjoy a woodland habitat. However these were categorised when first identified and some either were mistakenly classified as such or simply have had to find alternative habitats. The lappet group have wings having a shape resembling the distinctive fold in headgear and clothing of Victorian times, also known as lappets. Hook-tips, as the name suggests, have a distinct hook on the tip of the wing.

Those named from their flight include the skippers, a group which includes the smaller skipperlings, which are characterised by their tendency for short flights with exaggerated jerking movements. No surprise to find the December moth is seen flying in that month, however it is more commonly spotted in the previous two months.

The delightfully named Gatekeeper Butterfly is a species which is found in hedges and meadow margins. For this reason it is often seen sunning itself on posts and gates of fields. Presumably it also did so when tollgates littered the country and butterflies where much more numerous than today. The Puss moth is named because of its rather hairy appearance, the Kitten moth is named because they appear a smaller version of the Puss moth. Tussock moths are very hairy, so much so the hairs often disguise the fact they are moths.

Processionary moths are known as such for they wander around in single file as caterpillars when searching for food sources. Footmen are named for having bright colours likened to the uniforms of those from the royal courts. Similarly the tigers, handmaid and muslin species are all said to resemble such.

Doubtless there are many more species of butterfly and moth to be discovered, assuming scientists identify them before man's need for land destroy these habitats. It is highly likely these new species will be named for their discoverers, as is the norm today, rather than the delightfully creative names of yesteryear.

I would welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects, or even specific words to examine the origins, meanings and etymologies. I’d be delighted to hear from you.

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