Yesterday the question was raised why many languages do not share a root for 'butterfly'. When we look at the etymology of the English word, parallels are drawn to Dutch and German forms (OED):

OE buttorfleoge, ME buterfliȝe, ME boterfleȝe, -flye, botter-, bottir-, botyrflye... Etymology: < butter n.1 + fly n.1; with Old English buttorfléoge compare Dutch botervlieg , earlier botervlieghe , modern German butterfliege . The reason of the name is unknown: Wedgwood points out a Dutch synonym boterschijte in Kilian, which suggests that the insect was so called from the appearance of its excrement.

Are these forms true cognates, or are there other explanations? Maybe involving loan translations and/or spreading of particular beliefs about butterflies - e.g. that 'witches transformed themselves into butterflies to steal cream' - or independent coinings (because butterflies are/were attracted to the butter/dairy producing process)?

More forms (via wiktionary):

  • Old English butorflēoge, buttorflēoge, buterflēoge
  • Middle English buterflie, butturflye, boterflye
  • Middle Dutch botervliege
  • Modern German Butterfliege

But also:

  • Middle Dutch boterschijte 'butter shitter'
  • Middle High German Molkendiep 'milk-thief'
  • Modern German Molkendieb 'milk thief'; and Low German Botterlicker 'butter licker'

These latter names are similar in meaning, but different in form - can that be taken as support that naming practices (i.e. cultural factors) were important in this case? (Similarly modern German Schmetterling < Schmetten 'cream').

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    As much as I'd be interested, I doubt there is an answer beyond the usual sources like dictionaries. But I do hope somebody finds some research where the term "butterfly" happens to be included. :P – Alenanno Jan 15 '12 at 17:37
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    Generally questions for one single etymology (especially of English) are frowned upon on this SE. Try English Language and Usage; though again you probably won't hear anything new. – user325 Jan 15 '12 at 18:53
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    FWIW, the OED says: OE buttorfleoge, ME buterfliȝe, ME boterfleȝe, -flye, botter-, bottir-, botyrflye... (Show More) Etymology: < butter n.1 + fly n.1; with Old English buttorfléoge compare Dutch botervlieg , earlier botervlieghe , modern German butterfliege . The reason of the name is unknown: Wedgwood points out a Dutch synonym boterschijte in Kilian, which suggests that the insect was so called from the appearance of its excrement. – user325 Jan 15 '12 at 18:54
  • Thanks. I thought this was relevant here, as I'm interested in whether these are cognates or perhaps loan translations, and if there's any reconstructed forms (something beyond the OE form). – arjan Jan 15 '12 at 19:03
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    arjan, the question is interesting and on-topic, since you are looking for cross-linguistic relationships. Also, from your comments, I see you are approaching the problem from a historical perspective. But the question, as phrased, makes it seem like you are merely looking for the etymology of a single English word. The downvotes are probably because of this. Thus, I suggest you to rephrase the question so as to make its linguistic aspects more evident. – Otavio Macedo Jan 16 '12 at 12:06
up vote 6 down vote accepted

Bosworth's 18381 Dictionary of the Anglo-Saxon Language gives "buttor-fleoge, Plat. (Plat-dutch) Better-flege, Dut. Kil. (Dutch, from Kilian) Butor-vilege".

I don't know if it will be possible to determine if these were borrowings, calques, or cognates. These are all West Germanic languages spoken in a fairly small area that probably didn't have abrupt transitions between languages.

1 Note, The 1838 Bosworth is available online but the scanner cut off part of the page in question. The later Bosworths don't give the same cognate information.

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