Discussions about eggcorns and related topics
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Chris -- 2011-03-08
I had heard this term several times on the Cumberland Plateau, middle Tennessee. I intuitively thought it meant someone hurrying past, but no; it refers to what we call a “butterfly”.
Last edited by Windsong_Ranch (2006-06-20 20:03:36)
That one gets used in my family as well down here in New Zealand too.
If you read Chaucer in the original Middle English, you will see flutterby there also.
“Butterfly” is probably an eggcorn.
People have been telling me for years that “butterfly” was originally “flutterby.” I think I’d never bothered looking the word up before because I wanted the tale to be true—though I’ve always been skeptical.
My skepticism may have been well founded. Here’s the OED on the etymology of “butterfly”:
[f. BUTTER n.1 + FLY n.; with OE. buttorfléoge cf. Du. botervlieg, earlier botervlieghe, mod.G. butterfliege. The reason of the name is unknown: Wedgwood points out a Du. synonym boterschijte in Kilian, which suggests that the insect was so called from the appearance of its excrement.
This OED entry seems to me remarkable for a couple of reasons. First, it’s a bit surprising that the “butter” element in the compound may allude to excrement. “Flutterby” is looking better and better all the time. (Larvae certainly excrete, but do adult butterflies?) Second, shouldn’t that be “reason for” rather than “reason of”? Any experts in Victorian prose in the house?
I can’t find “flutterby” in Chaucer. Here’s one of the three citations I found for “boterflye”:
And so bifel that, as he caste his ye
Among the wortes on a boterflye,
He was war of this fox, that lay ful lowe.
This is from the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, and here Chauntecleer has just caught sight of the fox hiding out in the garden. Since that boterflye is resting on a “wort” (“cabbage,” says the footnote, though “wort” isn’t always so specific in Middle English), maybe it’s really a cabbage moth. I found two other instances of “butterfly” in the Riverside Chaucer, and they both used the “boterflye” spelling. No luck with “flutterbye,” “floterbye,” etc.
In the world of eggcorns, the eggcorn usually makes more immediate sense than the original word. That’s certainly true of “flutterby.” No one is sure just what “butter” has to do with those beautiful insects, but “flutterby” is self-explanatory. I’m not sure it’s an eggcorn—I’ve heard lots of people use it, and I believe they all knew the “standard” term—but it’s more eggcornish than “butterfly.”
Finally, if you want to see someone thinking way too hard about the compounding involved in the word “butterfly,” go here: