Words in the News


Liz Potter
Written by Liz Potter


a flying insect like a butterfly that flies mostly at night

View the full definition in the Macmillan Dictionary.

Origin and usage

The word moth has existed since the time of Old English, when it was used to refer to the cloth-eating species of moths and their larvae. As a general term to refer to the mostly nocturnal flying insects related to butterflies, it has only been in use since the 17th century.


This week is National Moth Week, an international citizen science project to study and record moth populations. The purpose of the week, which has been running since 2012, is to celebrate moths and gather information about their populations around the world. Participants are encouraged to observe and document moths in their areas, mostly at night when most moths are active, and report their findings to participating organizations. Moths inevitably attract less attention than their diurnal cousins, the butterflies, and are harder to observe, so it makes sense to harness the enthusiasm of citizen scientists in order to expand knowledge about them. The reputation of moths has not been helped by the small number of species whose larvae like to eat wool and other natural materials, making them a serious pest of clothes and soft furnishings. The adjective moth-eaten refers to fabrics that have been damaged by moths, or more generally to things that are old and damaged. The phrase like a moth to a candle flame evokes moths‘ tendency to be attracted to lights and often to perish by getting too close. Two (new to me) terms connected with moths are ‘mothing’, the activity of observing moths, and ‘moth-er’, someone who does this.


“Thus hath the candle sing’d the moth. O, these deliberate fools!”
(Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice)

“How, like a moth, the simple maid Still plays about the flame!”
(John Gay, The Beggar’s Opera)

Related words

butterfly, lepidopterist, lepidoptery

Browse related words in the Macmillan Thesaurus.

About the author

Liz Potter

Liz Potter

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