Etymology is the study of the origin of words. In the case of scientific names for many animal and plant species, examining the etymology of the species provides an insight into how and why it was named. However, in the case of common names for species, all hell breaks loose, and often the names given to species have left me scratching my head on many occasions!
Let’s just take the case of butterflies. Recently, I saw a butterfly that is called the Joker (Byblia ilithyia). When I first saw this pretty orange butterfly in Thoothukudi, I loved the sighting. Bright orange and black above, with similar markings below, the butterfly flitted about in the fields, and was quite common. As the butterfly is only seen in south India (though it is also found in parts of Africa), it was a ‘lifer’ for me (a species seen for the first time is called a lifer by many naturalists). But for the life of me, I could not find anything funny about it, so why call it joker?
I went online to check whether the word “bylbia” meant anything. The only thing I could come up with was that Byblia was also a name for Venus, an astral goddess among the ancient Greeks. Definitely nothing funny about that.
As a next step, I decided it was time to check what ‘ilithyia’ meant. A Google search threw up the fact that Ilithyia was the goddess of childbirth! This made me laugh, but still didn’t explain why the poor butterfly had been named joker. I gave up.
The funny thing is that joker isn’t the only quirky name for a butterfly. There are butterfly names such as wizard, witch, mystic, leopard, tiger, sergeant, sergeant major and commander. It does not stop here. There are butterflies that are nawabs, rajahs, dukes, emperors and princes!
Now all of these seem to indicate royalty but I am pretty certain none of the butterflies have any real ‘blue blood’ in them (being blue-blooded means descended from royalty). It is a different matter that butterflies are cold-blooded, their blood is not blue!
Most of these names don’t really signify anything about the butterflies, so the person giving them these common names must have been in a really funny mood.
I wish I could converse with the butterflies, for I am sure they would let me know that there was nothing funny about their names.