From the ‘gatekeeper’ to the ‘Scotch argus’, where did butterflies and moths get their strange names?

Members of the Society of Aurelians were artists, designers, silk traders and men-of-letters. So what inspired them to coin the many names of butterflies and moths we use today? The answer, reveals Peter Marren is beauty.

The names of our butterflies are so familiar now that it is easy to miss how strange they are. Some are baldly descriptive: there’s a large white (Pieris brassicae) and a small white (Pieris rapae); a large blue (Phengaris arion) and a small blue (Cupido minimus).

Yet we also have the more cryptic grayling (Hipparchia semele), gatekeeper (Pyronia tithonus), Scotch argus (Erebia aethiops) and wall (Lasiommata megera). We have a quintet with linear markings called hairstreaks and a group with chequered wings called fritillaries. These names are full of words that passed out of everyday use some time ago.

Who coined these unusual monikers? Who decided that one butterfly looked like a wall and that another recalled the many-eyed guardian Argus? It is possible to trace the history of butterfly names in a succession of beautifully illustrated books published during the 18th and early 19th centuries.

It emerges that the point of origin is the world’s earliest entomological society, which was founded in London about 300 years ago. It was called the Society of Aurelians or, simply, the Aurelians. Aurelian — ‘the golden one’ — was the 18th-century word for what we would now call a lepidopterist, one who is keenly interested in the Lepidoptera, the family of butterflies and moths.

Merveille du Jour moth (Griposia aprilina). Credit: Chris Mattison/Alamy Stock Photo

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We know about some of the society’s members and none of them was what we would call a scientist. Instead, they were artists, designers, men of letters and traders in silk and other fabrics. What seems to have united them was a keen sense of beauty. They were all men — formal clubs were men only — but some Society ladies were equally entranced by butterflies and moths, including Margaret Cavendish Bentinck, Duchess of Portland, one of the original Bluestockings. A pretty moth, the Portland, is still named after her.

When you talk about butterflies, you need identifying names. Up until then, only a few species had been individualised by folk titles, such as ‘admiral’ or ‘painted lady’—the rest were merely ‘butterflies’. It was the Aurelians who coined many of the names we use today.

What stands out is their sense of colour. Take the high brown fritillary (Fabriciana adippe). Its beautiful, chequered markings explain ‘fritillary’, a name the butterfly shares with a similarly patterned lily, but ‘high’ doesn’t denote its flying habits. It meant a rich shade of brown, as opposed to ‘sad brown’, that is, dull brown. It was the sort of phrase that only an artist would use.

Colour sense is also apparent in names such as silver-washed fritillary (Argynnis paphia). Peer closely at the underside of the hind-wings of this butterfly and you do, indeed, find a beautiful wash of silver, which seems to wet the surface as if applied by an artist’s brush. An equally sure appreciation of colour marked out the clouded yellow, a butterfly with a background colour of rich, saffron-yellow, seen as if suffused through vapour, with margins the colour of thunder clouds.

The names of butterflies match their hues and markings, but what really stretched the imaginations of the Aurelians was moths. Britain has only some 60 butterflies, but nearly 40 times that many moths. Less colourful than butterflies, many moths are shades of brown or grey that help to camouflage them during daylight hours. To name them, the Aurelians drew not on colours, but rather on shapes, textures and markings, naming some after people.

High brown fritillary (Fabriciana adippe) Credit:Robert Thompson/Avalon/Alamy

Some rather plain moths were called Quakers (Orthosia cerasi), after the homespun garb worn by early members of that religious sect. Equally plain, but darker moths became rustics (Hoplodrina blanda), for the weather-beaten clothing of the rural poor. The stiff posture, slim outline and beady-eyed heads of another group suggested footmen (some of the Aurelians would most certainly have had a footman or two in their houses).

There is quite a variety of mothy footmen, including a presumably ancient hoary footman (Eilema caniola), a pint-sized pigmy footman (Manulea pygmaeola), a disgracefully scruffy dingy footman (Collita griseola) and even a crimson speckled footman (Utetheisa pulchella), perhaps a retainer suffering from the measles.

Other names suggest objects in a well-to-do Georgian parlour. Moths with broad wings bearing Persian-like patterns were named carpets (not to be confused with moths that actually eat carpets: the latter are called clothes moths). A resemblance to the grain of wood-panelled walls created the wainscots, a group that lives among reeds. Others with distinctive shapes gave us the tussocks, lappets and festoon (Apoda limacodes). The Georgian lady’s favourite pet is immortalised in a group of tiny moths called pugs, with outspread wings that unconsciously mimic the shape of the dog’s wide-eyed, jowly face.

Given that the Aurelians included silk-designers and traders among their number, it is not surprising to find the names of different fabrics among the moths. We find satin moths (Leucoma salicis), muslin moths (Diaphora mendica) and tissue moths (Triphosa dubitata), for tissue was then a fabric, not a Kleenex. There are moths named after fine lace or with raised patterns known as brocades.

Crimson Speckled moth (Utetheisa pulchella). Credit: Jeff Higgott/Alamy Stock Photo

One of the odder names is lutestring. Here, again, the Aurelians were probably not thinking about stringed instruments so much as fabrics, for lutestring was the anglicised name of the lustrous material known as lustrine; these are shiny moths. There are even moths called shoulder-knots, named after a forgotten fashion of menswear in which coats were decorated with a twist of ribbon at the shoulder.

The moths known as beauties are, surprisingly, rather dull and grey. Yet amid their over-all greyness, our artistically minded Aurelians discerned all kinds of subtle hues and twists — they obviously found Nature’s colours, even tones of grey, genuinely inspiring.

Beyond the names that suggest a wood-lined parlour or the display window of a dressmaker, there are others that read like pure poetry. How cheering it would be, at the end of a long winter, to spot a moth named the spring usher (Agriopis leucophaearia).

What a delight to discover that an especially pretty, speckled-green moth is called the merveille du jour (Griposia aprilina) — although it might seem odd that this ‘marvel of the day’ only flies at night. Merveille du jour, however, was an everyday expression back then, used on occasions when we might say ‘super-duper’ or ‘the bee’s knees’.

The great good fortune is that these old names live on, although few of us now live in wood-panelled rooms and know a tussock from a festoon. They stand incongruously alongside the Latin names of later invention: pools of poetry from the age of Pope and Swift, lurking inside a scientific textbook.