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A butterfly.
A brimstone butterfly. The word butterfly may have its origins in the name of yellow (or cream-coloured) butterflies such as this.


From Middle English buterflie, butturflye, boterflye, from Old English butorflēoge, buttorflēoge, buterflēoge (from butere (butter)), equivalent to butter +‎ fly. Cognate with Dutch botervlieg, German Butterfliege (butterfly). The name may have originally been applied to butterflies of a yellowish color, and/or reflected a belief that butterflies ate milk and butter (compare German Molkendieb (butterfly, literally whey thief) and Low German Botterlicker (butterfly, literally butter-licker)), or that they excreted a butter-like substance (compare Dutch boterschijte (butterfly, literally butter-shitter)). Compare also German Schmetterling from Schmetten (cream), German Low German Bottervögel (butterfly, literally butter-fowl). More at butter, fly.

An alternate theory suggests that the first element may have originally been butor- (beater), a mutation of bēatan (to beat).[1]

Superseded non-native Middle English papilion (butterfly) borrowed from Old French papillon (butterfly).


  • IPA(key): /ˈbʌtə(ɹ)flaɪ/
    • (US, Canada) IPA(key): [ˈbʌɾɚflaɪ]
    • (file)
    • (UK) IPA(key): [ˈbʌtəflaɪ]
    • (file)
  • (file)
  • Rhymes: -aɪ


butterfly (plural butterflies)

  1. A flying insect of the order Lepidoptera, distinguished from moths by their diurnal activity and generally brighter colouring. [from 11th c.]
  2. (medicine, attributive) A use of surgical tape, cut into thin strips and placed across an open wound to hold it closed.
    butterfly tape; butterfly bandage; butterfly strips
  3. (swimming) The butterfly stroke. [from 20th c.]
  4. Any of several plane curves that look like a butterfly; see Butterfly curve (transcendental) and Butterfly curve (algebraic).
  5. (in the plural) A sensation of excited anxiety felt in the stomach.
    I get terrible butterflies before an exam.
  6. (now rare) Someone seen as being unserious and (originally) dressed gaudily; someone flighty and unreliable. [from 17th c.]
    • 1859, George Meredith, The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, Chapter 15:
      He was affable; therefore he was frivolous. The women liked him; therefore he was a butterfly.
    • 1897, Henry James, What Maisie Knew:
      The day came indeed when her breathless auditors learnt from her in bewilderment that what ailed him was that he was, alas, simply not serious. Maisie wept on Mrs. Wix's bosom after hearing that Sir Claude was a butterfly [].
  7. (finance) A combination of four options of the same type at three strike prices giving limited profit and limited risk.


Derived terms[edit]


The translations below need to be checked and inserted above into the appropriate translation tables, removing any numbers. Numbers do not necessarily match those in definitions. See instructions at Wiktionary:Entry layout § Translations.


butterfly (third-person singular simple present butterflies, present participle butterflying, simple past and past participle butterflied)

  1. (transitive) To cut (food) almost entirely in half and spread the halves apart, in a shape suggesting the wings of a butterfly.
    butterflied shrimp
    Butterfly the chicken before you grill it.
  2. (transitive) To cut strips of surgical tape or plasters into thin strips, and place across (a gaping wound) to close it.
    • 2006, Paul Garber, Newton's Force, page 256:
      After everyone had obeyed his commands, the lieutenant motioned for two medics that now appeared to enter the room and attend to Dr. Carter. They bandaged him up, butterflying some of the deeper gashes and gave him a couple of shots.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Donald A. Ringe, A Linguistic History of English: From Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic (Oxford: Oxford, 2003), 232.




butterfly c (singular definite butterflyen, plural indefinite butterfly)

  1. bowtie