Words in the News


Liz Potter
Written by Liz Potter

The sighting in a field in Berwickshire of a butterfly called the white-letter hairstreak marks the first time this elusive creature has been seen in Scotland since 1884, bringing the number of resident Scottish species to 34. Butterfly numbers have been declining for a long time, partly as a result of pressures on their habitats, though as the story of the white-letter hairstreak shows, environmental change can work both ways, with warmer conditions meaning that some species are spreading northwards.

Butterflies appear in many guises in the English language. The name of the swimming stroke presumably comes from the resemblance of the swimmer’s raised arms to the wings of a butterfly, while a squirming feeling of anxiety in your stomach is referred to as having or getting butterflies.

The way in which butterflies move from flower to flower led to them lending their name to someone who keeps changing from one thing to another, never settling to one activity, while this quality together with their showy beauty is evoked in the Kinks song Dedicated Follower of Fashion, whose protagonist ‘flits from shop to shop just like a butterfly’. The same quality is evoked in the term butterfly mind, which refers to an inability to concentrate or focus on a single thing.

The word butterfly comes from Old English, though it is unclear whether it got its name from the yellow colour of some species, or from a belief that the insects stole butter.

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Liz Potter

Liz Potter

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