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butterfly (n.)

common name of any lepidopterous insect active in daylight, Old English buttorfleoge, evidently butter (n.) + fly (n.), but the name is of obscure signification. Perhaps based on the old notion that the insects (or, according to Grimm, 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. Another theory connects it to the color of the insect's excrement, based on Dutch cognate boterschijte. Also see papillon.

Applied to persons from c. 1600, originally in reference to vain and gaudy attire; by 1806 in reference to transformation from early lowly state; in reference to flitting tendencies by 1873. The swimming stroke so called from 1935. As a type of mechanical nut, 1869. Butterflies "light stomach spasms caused by anxiety" is from 1908. "Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?" is from Pope.

The butterfly effect is a deceptively simple insight extracted from a complex modern field. As a low-profile assistant professor in MIT's department of meteorology in 1961, [Edward] Lorenz created an early computer program to simulate weather. One day he changed one of a dozen numbers representing atmospheric conditions, from .506127 to .506. That tiny alteration utterly transformed his long-term forecast, a point Lorenz amplified in his 1972 paper, "Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly's Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?" [Peter Dizikes, "The Meaning of the Butterfly," The Boston Globe, June 8, 2008]
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fly (n.)

Old English fleoge "a fly, winged insect," from Proto-Germanic *fleugon "flying insect" (source also of Old Saxon fleiga, Old Norse fluga, Middle Dutch vlieghe, Dutch vlieg, Old High German flioga, German Fliege "fly"); literally "the flying (insect)" (compare Old English fleogende "flying"), from PIE root *pleu- "to flow," which is also the source of fly (v.1).

Originally any winged insect (moths, gnats, beetles, locusts, hence butterfly, etc.) and long used by farmers and gardeners for any insect parasite. Flies figuratively for "large numbers" of anything is from 1590s. Plural flien (as in oxen, etc.) gradually normalized 13c.-15c. to -s. Fly in the ointment is from Eccles. x:1. Fly on the wall "unseen observer" first recorded 1881. No flies on _____ "no lack of activity or alertness on the part of," is attested by 1866. Meaning "fish-hook dressed to resemble an insect" is from 1580s; Fly-fishing is from 1650s. Fly-catcher "bird which eats insects on the wing" is from 1670s. The fly agaric mushroom (1788) so called because it was used as a poison for flies.

The sense of "a flight, flying" is from mid-15c. From the verb and the notion of "flapping as a wing does" comes the noun sense of "tent flap" (1810), which was extended to "strip of material sewn into a garment as a covering for buttons" or some other purpose (1844). Baseball fly ball attested by 1866. To do something on the fly is 1856, apparently from baseball.

When the catcher sees several fielders running to catch a ball, he should name the one he thinks surest to take it, when the others should not strive to catch the ball on the fly, but only, in case of its being missed, take it on the bound. ["The American Boys Book of Sports and Games," New York, 1864]
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papillon (n.)

1907 as a breed of dog, from French papillon, literally "butterfly," from Latin papilionem (nominative papilio) "butterfly," which is perhaps from a reduplicated form of a PIE root *pl- "to fly, flutter." The Latin word is believed to be cognate with Old English fifealde, Old Saxon fifoldara, Old Norse fifrildi, Old High German vivaltra, German Falter "butterfly;" Old Prussian penpalo, Lithuanian piepala, Russian perepel "quail." The dog was so called for the shape of the ears. Middle English had papilloun "a butterfly," from Old French.

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skipper (n.2)
"one who skips," mid-15c., agent noun from skip (v.). As a type of butterfly, 1817, from its manner of flight.
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fritillary (n.)
popular name of a type of British butterfly, 1857, earlier a type of plant (Fritillaria Meleagris, 1633), from Latin fritillus "dice-box," from fritinnire said to be imitative of the rattle of dice. The plant so called in allusion to the shape of its perianth. The butterfly so called perhaps from resemblance of its markings to those of dice or a chessboard (perhaps on the confused notion that fritillus meant "chessboard").
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pavilion (n.)

early 13c., paviloun, "large, stately tent raised on posts and used as a movable habitation," from Old French paveillon "large tent; butterfly" (12c.), from Latin papilionem (nominative papilio) "butterfly, moth," in Medieval Latin "tent" (see papillon); the type of tent was so called on its resemblance to wings. Meaning "open building in a park, etc., used for shelter or entertainment" is attested from 1680s. Sense of "small or moderate-sized building, isolated but dependent on a larger or principal building" (as in a hospital) is by 1858.

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painted (adj.)

c. 1300, "depicted in a picture;" early 15c., "coated with paint," past-participle adjective from paint (v.). In zoology, used of bright or highly colored creatures; painted-lady is from 1829 as a type of butterfly.

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monarch (n.)

mid-15c., monark, "supreme governor for life, a sole or autocratic ruler of a state," from Old French monarche (14c., Modern French monarque) and directly from Late Latin monarcha, from Greek monarkhēs "one who rules alone" (see monarchy). "In modern times generally a hereditary sovereign with more or less limited powers" [Century Dictionary, 1897].

As a type of large orange and black North American butterfly by 1885; on one theory it was so called in honor of King William III of England, who also was Prince of Orange, in reference to the butterfly's color. An older name is milkweed-butterfly (1871). Other old names for it were danais and archippus.

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swallowtail (n.)
also swallow-tail, 1540s as a type of arrowhead, from swallow (n.1) + tail (n.). Of a type of butterfly, by 1776; of a type of coat, 1835. As an adjective from 1590s. The bird's tail is long and deeply forked.
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viceroy (n.)

person ruling as representative of a sovereign, 1520s, from French vice-roy, from Old French vice- "deputy" (see vice-) + roi "king," from Latin regem (nominative rex) "king," which is related to regere "to keep straight, guide, lead, rule" (from PIE root *reg- "move in a straight line," with derivatives meaning "to direct in a straight line," thus "to lead, rule"). The species of American butterfly so called from 1881.

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