How did butterflies get their names?
How did butterflies get those names, and, who names them?
The short answer to the first part of the question is butterfly marketing. Butterflies get their common names as part of a butterfly promotion effort.
In 1874, one of the leading entomologists of the day, Samuel Hubbard Scudder, proposed a system for naming butterflies that would appeal to the average American.
He said, "In our own country all the common birds and flowers have also received such names, and it is my belief that the study of butterflies would be far more popular, if they also had common names." (source: Psyche: A Journal of Entomology)
Today, thanks in part to Scudder's vision, butterflies are the most popular insects in the United States.
Since 1874, approximately 750 different butterfly species have been given common names, based primarily on the butterfly's physical characteristics or geographical location.
As the number of still to be discovered butterfly species decreases, the butterfly naming competition heats up.
In 2007, The University of Florida held an auction for the rights to name a newly discovered owl butterfly species. A winning bid of $40,800, was received to name the butterfly the Minerva owl butterfly, in memory of Margery Minerva Blythe Kitzmiller of Ohio. The proceeds of the auction help fund continued research about butterfly species in Mexico.
Apart from the marketing angle, butterfly etomology can be difficult to determine. Why, for example, are butterflies called butterflies or admiral butterflies called admiral butterflies or monarch butterflies called monarchs?
Again, there is no easy answer, and the questions continue to amuse butterfly enthusiasts. Here are some possible explanations.
The 1869 Webster's Dictionary says, "Butterfly, so named from the colour of a yellow species".
The book, Folk-etymology: A Dictionary of Verbal Corruptions Or Words, published in 1862 suggests,
"It may be noted that the handsome butterfly called the admiral, is also known as the admirable, which was probably its original name."
The book, Insect Potpourri By Jean Ruth Adams, says,
"the early settlers of Colonial America were impressed with this striking insect and gave it the name "monarch" in honor of "King William, Prince of Orange, stateholder of Holland, and later King of England".
© 2008 Patricia A. Michaels