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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 '15 at 13:32
  • @Nico: Is that an answer? – Oddthinking Apr 25 '15 at 15:50
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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 '15 at 15:52
  • Ok a better answer has been posted! – nico Apr 25 '15 at 15:53
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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 '15 at 16:44
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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!

Conclusion

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.

Some of the information contained in this post requires additional references. Please edit to add citations to reliable sources that support the assertions made here. Unsourced material may be disputed or deleted.

  • Would be interesting to find the earliest occurence of 'flutterby', too. – jamesqf Apr 25 '15 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 '15 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. – George Chalhoub Apr 26 '15 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 '15 at 16:47
  • 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 '17 at 7:09
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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 '15 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 '15 at 17:26
  • @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. – BobTheAverage Sep 27 '17 at 15:08
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In "The Earliest English Texts", which "is intended to include all the Old-English texts up to about 900":

The words for butterfly are

buturfliogo

buterflege

buturfliogae

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)

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