I’ve seen quite a few butterflies recently. I thought it was too early for them, but perhaps it’s all to do with climate change (for which we humans are, of course, not responsible). Today I saw a dear little yellow one. I think it was probably a Eurema hecabe, either the common or the large grass yellow. Then I read that they are seen in all seasons. Whatever it was it was pretty, delicate and calming. I have heard butterflies and dragonflies are believed to be the spirits of those we love who have gone before us. There are many stories of sightings which have brought tranquility to anxious souls. I think it’s a lovely idea.
It seems that the etymology of butterfly isn’t really obscure (sad, I love a good mystery). It comes from the Old English buttorfleoge—literally butter and fly. There doesn’t appear to be consensus as to why the butter part, but it might have been something to do with colour of many common English butterflies; or it might have had something to do with the belief that insects (or witches in disguise) consumed butter or milk left uncovered. Then it might also have something to do with the colour of their excrement. Hmmm.
When we lived on the farm we used to have young Swedish friends and relatives to stay for the summer months. They helped on the farm and assisted my mother with household things, including looking after her youngest daughter (that’d be me). One came in from the garden one day and announced: ‘There is a cauliflower flying round the garden.’ It was a butterfly. I can understand the confusion (not!). It caused much mirth—almost as much as having one of them read from one of my favourite books about Little Johnny Jackdaw. ‘J’ is not in Swedes’ vocabulary.
Cauliflower isn’t nearly as exciting as witches stealing milk or butter. It comes directly from the Italian cavoli fiori (flowered cabbage). The Old English is cole florye. As any gardener knows, cauliflowers and other brassicas attract butterflies, so perhaps there is an unknown relationship we are yet to discover. Perhaps the Swedes could enlighten us.
I always thought that strawberries got their name from strew-berry because they strew, or threw, out their runners. It has nothing to do with the straw on which they are often grown, that being a much more recent gardening technique than the berry itself, which grew wild. The Old English is streawberige or streaberie and its origins are lost in those mists of time. It could be, apparently, because of the little seeds which resemble straw (if you have a vivid imagination) or chaff, but I prefer the first explanation.
Raspberry’s etymology also seems a bit cloudy. It might come from raspis berry, or rapise, a sweet rose-colored wine. I think it should have come from the scratchiness of the raspberry canes; but there is no intimation of that anywhere, other than the possibility of an Old Walloon word raspoie, meaning thicket. I’m sure I don’t need to remind you of the rhyming slang for raspberry tart.
And to finish, doesn’t fledermaus have a much nicer ring to it than bat. I’m sure Strauss wouldn’t have called his opera The Bat.