I've heard it said on multiple occasions that the word Butterfly was originally Flutterby, but that it was either misread or mispronounced and somehow ended up being recorded as Butterfly instead. I did a quick google and found the following for the word's etymology:

Old English, from butter + fly; perhaps from the cream or yellow colour of common species, or from an old belief that the insects stole butter.

Source: google

I did not find reference to the term Flutterby in any dictionary definitions, but did read this article which addresses the Flutterby word and states that the author is not aware of any such origin, and dismisses the idea as nonsense.

Is it likely or at least possible that the word Butterfly did in fact start as some variant or analogue of Flutterby?

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    From OED: [f. butter n.1 + fly n.; with OE. buttorfléoᴁe cf. Du. botervlieg, earlier botervlieghe, mod.G. butterfliege. The reason of the name is unknown: Wedgwood points out a Du. synonym boterschijte in Kilian, which suggests that the insect was so called from the appearance of its excrement.]
    – nico
    Apr 25, 2015 at 13:32
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    Hmmm not quite. It does not confirm neither disprove the claim. Just adds to the origin unknown part... But I wonder what would be a better answer.
    – nico
    Apr 25, 2015 at 15:52
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    @nico: I disagree. I think your answer is better. Short, sharp, peer-reviewed (of a sort), definitive. I am not sure why people are voting up an question that is best answered by looking it up in a decent dictionary.
    – Oddthinking
    Apr 26, 2015 at 16:44
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    This question would have a more appropriate home at english.stackexchange.com
    – Benjol
    May 27, 2015 at 9:05
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    See english.stackexchange.com/a/331869/75136. (I can't post a comment.)
    – user34344
    Jun 11, 2016 at 5:48

4 Answers 4


Flutterby was (or is) used by children as an expression for butterfly.

Dialect Notes, Volume 4 was published by American Dialect Society in 1917. It mentions:

Some instances of the transposition of syllables [...] are pillercat for caterpiller and flutterby for butterfly in the usage of children.

However, the word for butterfly is not derived from that usage. Butterfly comes from the Old English "buttorfleoge", according to etymonline.com:

butterfly (n.): Old English buttorfleoge, evidently butter (n.) + fly (n.), but of obscure signification. Perhaps based on the old notion that the insects (or witches disguised as butterflies) consume butter or milk that is left uncovered. Or, less creatively, simply because the pale yellow color of many species' wings suggests the color of butter.

The Newsletter and Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London, Volumes 15-17 also confirms that the origins of butterfly are unknown:

Why is a butterfly called a butterfly in Britain? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the reason is unknown! However, two possible derivations are offered: (1) from the Anglo-Saxon butterfleoge (literally butterfly) so called after the yellow species, and/or from the Old Dutch boterschijte (butter-shit) from the colour of the excretion of Cabbage White!


Does the word “butterfly” stem from an erroneous transcription of “flutterby”? Is it likely or at least possible that the word Butterfly did in fact start as some variant or analogue of Flutterby?

Not really. The newsletter and Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London, Volumes 15-17 suggested two possible derivations and none had your claim. Books and references suggest that butterfly stem from butterfleoge; the rest is unknown.

  • Would be interesting to find the earliest occurence of 'flutterby', too.
    – jamesqf
    Apr 25, 2015 at 19:07
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    Note that NONE of your sources is really reputable. One is even a children's book. Please fix or this might be removed...
    – Sklivvz
    Apr 26, 2015 at 9:23
  • @Oddthinking: Good edit. Is the wikipedia passage acceptable? Wikipedia has two sources for the claim. One moderator could delete my answer if s(he) thinks the wikipedia passage is not acceptable. I think we should remove it. Apr 26, 2015 at 16:43
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    Each of your references for the etymology of butterfly is secondary. Why quote Wikipedia or the proceedings, when you could follow the provided references, and quote (for example) the OED directly?
    – Oddthinking
    Apr 26, 2015 at 16:47
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    This answer is very interesting, because the modern Dutch word for butterfly is "vlinder", which has nothing to do with either butter or flying or poop anymore. Apparently English is more like Old Dutch than Dutch is :)
    – Erik
    Sep 27, 2017 at 7:09

To show flutterby is the origin of butterfly, it would need to precede it in time. With the OED pointing to Old English versions of butterfly, and Shakespeare using it several times, perhaps best known in King Lear Act 5 Scene 3

laugh at gilded butterflies

this seems unlikely.

There are very few examples of flutterby in literature and even fewer claims as to its original use. The earliest I could do was a 1867 book by American journalist Marcus M. "Brick" Pomeroy called Nonsense, which contains the lines

Beautiful as a flutterby,

And none could compare

With my pretty little charmer

And her rich, wavy hair.

This does not prove there was not an earlier form, but flutterby looks like a easy and pretty, and perhaps even frequent, spoonerism of butterfly which never really entered the English language.

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    This does not seem to be sufficient evidence. It could very well be the case that the earlier usage was lost for some reason.
    – March Ho
    Apr 26, 2015 at 14:33
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    @March Ho: What you say is certainly possible for a few individual cases. But consider that the only two earlier examples from Google Books are clearly scanning errors for two words, while the equivalent search for butterfly produces a very large number of credible examples.
    – Henry
    Apr 26, 2015 at 17:26
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    @MarchHo This answer provides useful supplemental evidence and goes after the correct way of finding the origin of words. I can't imagine anyone giving a complete answer to this question. Language is simply to messy for anything other than the simplest questions to be completely answered. Sep 27, 2017 at 15:08
  • In eight years, Google Books has expanded, so there are now a few earlier 19th century examples but nothing before that. One is the 1858 novel What You Will. an Irregular Romance where one of the characters is "Mrs Caroline Flutterby"
    – Henry
    May 7, 2023 at 23:50

In "The Earliest English Texts", which "is intended to include all the Old-English texts up to about 900":

The words for butterfly are




So it is clear that "butter" followed by "fly" is the word order also long ago as is known.

(I could use help editting this answer, because I don't fully understand the reference)


TL/DR: It's more probable that the name really derives from butter because other Germanic dialects relate the insect with diary products as well. To explain why, the Brothers Grimm suggest a connection with an ancient folk belief.

Long answer:

There are similar expressions for butterfly in other Germanic languages and dialects. The Deutsches Wörterbuch (1854–1961), which was initiated by the the famous linguists and folklorists Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, has in its entry on Schmetterling (German for butterfly):

eine gruppe von namen, die besonders im nd. und md. gebiete heimisch sind, setzt das thier mit butter, milch, molke in beziehung: buttervogel, butterfliege (vgl. ags. buttorfleóge, engl. butterfly)

My translation:

a group of names that are particularly native to low German and middle German areas relate the animal with butter, milk, whey: buttervogel [lit. butterbird], butterfliege [lit. butterfly] (cf. ags. buttorfleóge, engl. butterfly)

The entry mentions more regional names for butterfly, including molkentöver:

der ursprüngliche sinn dieses molkentöver ist 'molkenzauberer' [...]. eine alte vorstellung des volksglaubens liegt hier zu grunde, dasz hexen die gestalt von schmetterlingen annehmen und in dieser verhüllung einem ihrer hauptgeschäfte, dem verderben der milch- und buttervorräte nachgehen.

My translation:

the original meaning of this molkentöver is 'whey wizard' [...]. this is based on an old folk belief that witches take the form of butterflies and pursue, in this disguise, one of their main businesses: spoiling milk and butter supplies.

The entry also includes references to the Brother Grimm's folklorist research:

vergl. hierüber Grimm myth.4 897 und weiter über die bedeutung des schmetterlings im volksglauben ebenda 905, 691, nachtr. 247

cf. on this Grimm myth.4 897 and further on the significance of the butterfly in folk belief ibid. 905, 691, subsequently 247


  • „schmetterling, m.“, Deutsches Wörterbuch von Jacob Grimm und Wilhelm Grimm, digitized version in the dictionary network of the Trier Center for Digital Humanities, Version 01/23, https://www.woerterbuchnetz.de/DWB?lemid=S13715, retrieved on 07.05.2023.

  • Jacob Grimm: Deutsche Mythologie, available online at Projekt Gutenberg

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