4.5 out of 5 stars

If you were to stop someone in the street and ask them to name three butterflies then you would probably get Cabbage White and Red Admiral before they’d be struggling to name a third. There are some people that know more, but there are not many people who would be able to name a large proportion or even all of the 59 species that we have in the UK. It is the same with moths, they are attracted to your lights at night, but which of the 2500 species could it be?

And where did these beautiful insects get their names unusual and creative names from? Well if you go back to several hundred years you’d find the first butterflies appearing in print in Theatrem Insectorum by Thomas Moffat. Even though he was the author, the majority of the work has been completed by Edward Wotton and Thomas Penny, by Penny had died and passed the manuscript to Moffat. It finally appeared in English in 1658 and in the 241 pages dedicated to insects or lesser living creatures. The woodcut drawings within didn’t help the identification, but the watercolour paintings that inspired the woodcuts made the identification of the species very easy. But they still didn’t have any names.

They did start to appear about a century later in a book by Petiver. He was the first to use words like fritillary, and argus. Many of his names have faded from memory now, but his Brown Meadow eye is now called as the Meadow Brown, and his Admiral is now known as the Red Admiral. Interest in these insects grew when artists started to paint accurate images of them. Maria Sibylla Merian portrayal of butterflies was so good that she was described as the godmother of modern scientific illustration, thankfully they have included some examples of her work.

In the first part of the 1700s, the Aurelian society was formed. The membership of this group was a collection of artists, merchants, poets, and unusually for the time, even took in member from what were considered the lower classes. It was a little while after the Linnaeus started to apply his newly invented naming system and spilt them into five groups,  which were used for a fair time until the Victorians made the study of insects, or entomology, a thing.

The second part of the book is a very detailed A to Z of the weird and wonderful names of butterflies and moths. There are short essays on how names have been inspired by things as diverse as carpets, hair, architecture, Manchester, spices and even something called wainscots. This is where the real detail is as Marren teases out the reasoning behind the names that these ornamental insects have ended up with, for example how the goat moth got its name, the original name for the deaths head moth and how many are named after thieves.

This is the first of Little Toller’s field guides, and if this is anything to go by then it is going to an excellent series. It is beautifully produced, as with all their books and Marren’s writing as he flits from fact to fact, just like a butterfly, is both informative and captivating without feeling academical, But you know it is backed up by solid research. If there was one thing, not a flaw, just a preference, I would have liked a few more colour plates as some of these creatures are magnificent.


Three Favourite Butterfly Names

Lulworth Skipper


Clouded Yellow


Three Favourite Moth Names

Dark Arches

Cinnabar Moth

Transparent Clearwing

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