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Many have remarked on the poetic names of our butterflies and moths. Their beauty fires our imaginations. Some are named after human occupations and social rank: Emperors, footmen, a miller, Quakers, lackeys, ‘rustics’ and chimney sweepers. Still more are named after animals: tigers, hawks, goats, sharks, even pug dogs. There are species named after jewels, musical instruments, fabrics, letters, carpets, flowers, heraldry and shells. Some names are downright baffling. Why was one butterfly called an ‘admiral’ and another an ‘argus’? Why, for that matter, are they called ‘butterflies’?
The scientific names, too, contain many allusions. One whole subset of moths is named after weddings. Another group is named after souls. A great many names are cherry-picked from classical tales and legends, often with relevance to a particular butterfly or moth. Some names are spooky, even sexy. Or funny, for Latin names contain word games and jokes.
There has never been an accessible and comprehensive guide to the names of our butterflies and moths, both English and Latin. This beautiful book, written with Peter Marren’s usual wit and insight, takes you on a journey back to a time before the arts and science were divided. When entomologists were also poets and painters, and when a gift for vivid language went hand-in-hand with a deep pre-Darwinian fascination for the emerging natural world.
Peter Marren has written widely on the natural world and our association with it. Among some twenty books, he is the author of Rainbow Dust, Bugs Britannica, The New Naturalists which won the Thackray Medal, as well as contributions to Collins New Naturalist, the British Wildlife Collection and Poyser Natural History, He writes regularly for British Wildlife and Butterfly magazine and is a former columnist in The Countryman. For 14 years he worked for the Nature Conservancy Council in Scotland and England. He lives in Ramsbury in Wiltshire.
"Allow me to go straight to the point: this book is a delight from start to finish – a gentle, witty and highly erudite exploration of the notoriously whimsical names of the Lepidoptera order. Peter Marren, the amiable sage, sits with us, perhaps in a quiet country pub, telling us stories – and there is a lot to tell. [...] A blessed union of entomology and etymology, this book is a treasure."
– John Wright, Countryfile, September 2019
"There are some books that could have been written only by one person and this is one such. Who else but Peter Marren could combine such deep expertise on moths and butterflies with such a wide-ranging knowledge about the origins of their wonderful names and the lives of the characters who invented them or appear in them. [...] . On the basis of this book and the rest of his astonishing oeuvre, I think that we can say in turn that Marren is a naturalist with the soul and imagination of a poet."
– Jeremy Mynott, British Wildlife 30(6), August 2019