Butterflies have charisma in spades. Their striking patterns and colours are where this is most obvious but their habits have an inherent draw as well. Male owl butterflies fight when they imbibe too much fermented fruit. Julia butterflies dance on the eyes of crocodiles to make them cry and then drink their tears. This whimsy in their physical form and behaviour also carries through to their names which are surprisingly rich in metaphor and poetry.
The common jezebel, the cloudless sulphur, the blue heart playboy. These are just some of the appellations that had the team working on the Museum’s Secret World of Butterflies exhibition wondering how butterflies got their names.
It’s not too much of a stretch to surmise that a cabbage white has white wings and its caterpillar eats cabbages. But what about the butterflies with more symbolic monikers – who might have named them and why?
[I] Philip Shaw, ‘Three types of zoological common names and their formation-processes’, Nordic Journal of English Studies, vol 15 no 2, 2016, p. 173.
[II] Leach, p. 102.
[III] Dennis D Murphy and Paul R Ehrlich, ‘Crows, bobs, tit, elfs and pixies: The phoney “common name” phenomenon’, The Journal of Research on the Lepidoptera, vol 22, no 2, 1983, pp. 154, 155, 157.
[IIII] Adrian Hoskins, ‘Taxonomy and evolution’, Learn about Butterflies: The complete guide to the world of Butterflies and Moths, https://www.learnaboutbutterflies.com/Taxonomy.htm (accessed 22 January 2019)
[V] Shaw, p. 180.
By Rebecca Lal, Writer, 4 February 2019
Rebecca would like to thank Curator of Entomology John Early for his comments and editorial guidance during the creation of this article.