As a child I was only aware of three butterflies: the red admiral, the tortoiseshell and something I called a cabbage white. Although my family were keen gardeners they were not particularly interested in insects or fauna and it was many years before I realised that there were a whole host more of British butterflies and to learn something of their names and history.
The word butterfly is ancient. It is first recorded in an Anglo-Saxon manuscript written 1300 years ago and the name is common to several North European languages. Since butter is yellow it seems that the original butterfly must have been the male Brimstone, which is bright yellow in colour.
The English names for butterflies are also very poetic, or many of them are. Often these names are assumed to have been given in the nineteenth but most are far older than that. However it took a while for consistent butterfly names to evolve. This did not stop people from describing them in gorgeous language though. In 1589 the Tudor physician Thomas Moffet described the Peacock butterfly’s wings as: “Four adamants (diamonds) glistering in a bezel of Hyacinth which shine curiously like stars and do cast about them sparks of the Rain-bow.”
By 1748, when The English Moths and Butterflies by Benjamin Wilkes had been published, most butterflies had acquired their modern names. Many of these include a colour: Clouded Yellow, Small Copper, Orange-tip. Wilkes was an artist and so may well have been looking at his butterflies with the same sense of colour and imagination he used for his art. Other were named simply for the places they were found. The Wall is self-explanatory and the Gatekeeper often flies along the side of hedges and meadows.
What of my childhood Red Admiral? It is apparently nothing to do with the sea and derives from its size, beauty and colour. It was originally called “Red Admirable.” Because there is also a White Admiral butterfly I had assumed that they were associated in some way with naval squadrons! However, they are both indisputably admirable.
The cabbage white is actually the Large White, which has a taste for cabbages. And now I have discovered so many more butterflies with wonderfully historic, evocative names: The Purple Emperor and The Duke of Burgundy for example. (Unfortunately no one seems to know which Duke of Burgundy it is named after or why). A visitor to my own garden is the Painted Lady, which sounds slightly raffish and disreputable, like a courtesan perhaps. So as I watch the butterflies in my summer garden I not only admire their beauty but also think about the astonishing stories behind their names.