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
- 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').