Monday 9 June 2008


An interesting piece in the current issue of Butterfly magazine, by Peter Marren, who is working on the eagerly awaited Bugs Britannica. Marren explores the origin of the word 'butterfly' - and it is not as simple as I'd always thought. It seems it's not all down to the butter-yellow, early-flying Brimstone, but rather to do with an association between butterflies and - yes - butter, or more precisely buttermilk. The German schmetterling comes from a root meaning cream or sour milk, and there's a German dialect name for butterfly that means milk thief - which links butterflies to the world of witchcraft, and explains those sinister images of demonic butterflies in Bosch and Breughel. There are reports of clouds of butterflies - attracted by the buttermilk smell - forming when butter is churned in the open air... On the other hand, an alternative theory suggests that the word might go back to a very ancient root and be essentially meaningless.
Anyway, it's a sunny day, I have escaped the clutches of NigeCorp for the time being. I intend to go out and look for butterflies.
(By the way, if you join that excellent organisation Butterfly Conservation, you can get your own Butterfly magazine.)


  1. I much prefer to use the spoonerism, flutterby.

  2. an alternative theory suggests that the word might go back to a very ancient root and be essentially meaningless.

    ...rather, and seeing that Germans are not on the whole entirely trustworthy, I, too, incline to this theory. As I do to the following:

    “When der Hahn kräht auf dem Mist,
    dann ändert sich das Wetter,
    oder - es bleibt wie es ist!"

    meaning: if the cockerel crows on a pile of shit,
    the weather might change or -
    that is it...!

    A rule which I have never known to fail.

    But on a different topic, Nige. Seriously: Why aren’t there any frogs in Hertfordshire....? (I intend to go out and look for frogs - hoping that one might turn into a Prince).


  3. Selena, perhaps Nige has already turned them all into princes?

  4. Very interesting Nige, we see a lot of butterflies in the fields on the south side of the Taunus, dairy herds graze there, on the north side, not so many, possibly there may be some truth in that theory, or there again it may just be those fiendish Germans at work again. Selina, try the garden of the Three Horse Shoes in Letchworth, by 11.0 PM every Friday I used to see frogs, large spiders, fire breathing dragons, blue lights flashing, barred windows, them were the days.

  5. Nige, you must admit that butterflies, for all their beauty, have some pretty nasty habits. At any rate, I have seen them dining on some pretty disgusting things while gracefully twitching their wings. This explains to me the buttermilk story -- they were looking for something sour and fluttering aesthetically around it.

  6. A description by Homer has the armies milling before Troy likened to flies over a pail of milk.

  7. Ah yes Vince - an army of butterflies, there's an image...
    And Susan, the gorgeous Purple Emperor is one of the grossest eaters, very fond of horse dung and rotting carrion.
    Selena - Hertfrogshire seems to be blessed with much aquatic life - see this - and the frogs there are busy making more. Or maybe one of them's a prince...

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

  9. It was a delightfully sunny day here in Bath. A bit too sunny, in fact, on the walk back up to the B&B. But even that turned out alright: I discovered the workshop of Timothy Richards. He was most gracious, spending a great deal of time showing us works-in-progress.

  10. Nige, Your bug link is much appreciated, this little chap
    has been mating around the pond all week in large numbers, I wondered which damselfly it was.

  11. Thanks for the link, Nige.

    Quote: “...increasing losses of suitable breeding ponds has severely reduced the size of populations in the wider British countryside.”

    And that would seem to apply to Herts as well. There’s no shortage of low-lying meadows and waterways. And yet, I still have to find my first frog. Let alone frog-spawn, which was abundant when I was a child. Intensive farming, I suppose, fertilizers etc. are at fault. Killing off insects in the first place. Followed by swifts and swallows. Then the frogs go. Followed by herons etc. Though, I dare say, the Kingfisher is still about...

  12. Yes Selena, I fear it's all those neat little garden ponds - a gift to herons, magpies, crows etc, but not so good for frogs, especialy with all those herons, magpies etc around. Round here, I've seen magpies fly off with frogs dangling from their bills - but the frogs are hanging on, and managed to breed again in a tiny pond in a front garden round the corner. When I was a child round here, though, frogs and frog spawn were indeed everywhere. We also had newts,oddly, in our garden air-raid shelter. And toads were quite common...
    And Randy, thanks for the Timothy Richards link - I've seen his work, but didn't know his name till now.