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1. an old word meaning ‘sulphur’

2. a butterfly with bright yellow wings

View the full definition in the Macmillan Dictionary.

Origin and usage

The term brimstone meaning ‘sulphur’ was first recorded in English in the early 14th century. It probably comes from words meaning ‘burning’ and ‘stone’, a reference to the ease with which sulphur burns. The first reference to the brimstone butterfly dates from the 1820s.


While the noun brimstone is no longer used to refer to the element sulphur, this meaning remains in the language in the expression fire and brimstone, which is used to refer to the torments of hell.  Brimstone combined with treacle was also given as a remedy for various ailments. The element’s yellow colour led to its name being applied to a European butterfly, Gonepteryx rhamni, the male of which has bright yellow wings. Unlike many other butterflies, brimstones overwinter and therefore emerge on sunny days in early spring, making them one of the first butterflies to be seen at the end of winter.


“From his brimstone bed, at break of day, A-walking the Devil is gone, To look at his little, snug farm of the World, And see how his stock went on.”
(Robert Southey)

Related words

sulphur, sulphur dioxide, sulphurous

Browse related words in the Macmillan Thesaurus.


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