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.

Common jezebel (Delias eucharis) © 2012 Jee & Rani Nature Photography (CC0 1.0)

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? 

Outside of naturalist Carl Linnaeus’ system of classifying species through binomial nomenclature, giving each species a unique two-part scientific name, much of the natural world has popular or common names that have been in existence for centuries. These names were coined by those who worked with or made money from these creatures, for instance a fisherman’s names for fish. Because butterflies have little value in the marketplace, apart from their rarity and attractiveness to collectors, the cabbage white is the only English name appointed thusly.

Beyond those with just a practical interest in butterflies are enthusiasts, known archaically as Aurelians, collectors, and what linguist Philip Shaw calls ‘educated observers’ (I). Butterfly names from these sources usually have two parts as well – a group name that reflects the genus or family, and a word that describes the butterfly’s appearance, habitat, location, or behaviour – white, swallowtails, cracker, skipper. The descriptive name can be literal or metaphorical, for instance emperors tend to be large butterflies. Names may be military in the case of the admiral – though some say this could be a contraction of ‘admirable’. Or classical, as with the Apollos (pictured right). Or indicate where the butterfly was first seen, as does the Camberwell beauty, whose name also shows regionalism as the same species is called the mourning cloak in North America. Or it may include the name of the naturalist who first identified it, as does the Glanville fritillary that takes its name from Lady Glanville who first discovered it in the 1690s.

Image (right): Apollo butterfly (Parnassius apollo pirineus) © 2010 Hinox CC BY-SA 3.0

In the ‘naming culture’ of the Enlightenment it mattered what butterflies were called, says William Leach in Butterfly People. He calls this a generous and humane act, allowing humans to affirm a bond with other species. Most butterfly names were coined by collectors in the late 1600s, and in 1700 and early 1800s. The namer gained prestige in being the first to name a species, and naming became a hotly contested field rife with assassinations on character and professional jealousies. American entomologist Herman Strecker criticised British entomologist Augustus Grote for hitching his name to the end of hundreds of species, exposing him as a man who cared nothing for nature and science and only about himself – ironically Strecker could be accused of the same vainglory (II).  A significant number of English names were invented by apothecarist (a medical herbalist) and ‘father of British butterflies’ James Petiver, including the admirals, fritillaries, hairstreaks, and tortoiseshells. 

The only common names you’ll find both scientists and laypeople using with any frequency are the monarch and viceroy. For most scientists, common names don’t describe the butterfly at all and show the regional bias of their maker. Biologists Dennis D Murphy and Paul Ehrlich argue that common names are worthless and often ‘outright misleading’, citing the ‘scarcely scarce’ scarce swallowtail (pictured left) and the Duke of Burgundy fritillary which is not a fritillary at all but a metalmark. For them, the scientific name is ‘universal currency for communication’ [III] .  

Image (left): Scarce swallowtail (Iphiclides podalirius) © 2012 Björn S CC BY-SA 3.0

Some entomologists, however, even get a little creative in their approach to scientific names. Jason Hall and Donald Harvey named a pair of Colombian metalmarks as Charis ma and Charis matic. Uninspired by finding a new species of Mexican skipper that looked like all the ones before it, George T Austin called his latest discovery Inglorius mediocris, known commonly as the mediocre skipper (IV).

And Linneaus flavoured some of his scientific names with references to classical mythology, naming Papilio ulysses (pictured right) after the wandering hero and Papilio menelaus after the King of Sparta who hid inside the Trojan horse. 

These tensions between the needs of different names will always exist. As Shaw says, ‘Collectors only want a label but biologists want names to be terms reflecting the real taxonomy.’(V)  

So what of the jezebel, sulphur and playboy? Jezebels with their striking yellow and orange colours are named after the wife of King Ahab in the Old Testament, a wanton woman known for her extravagant make-up and finery.  Sulphurs are of course a bright yellow. I couldn’t find anything about the origins of the playboy’s name but perhaps it refers to this butterfly’s fondness for nectar and its glam iridescent sheen. 

Whatever the origin and no matter how poetic or prosaic, butterfly names add another layer of charm to these fascinating creatures.

Image (right): Blue mountain swallowtail (Papilio ulysses)© 1998 Willem van Aken CC BY 3.0

[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.