Butterflies are Nouns, Dragonflies are Verbs

Teresa Green made a comment on one of my posts about how imaginative the common names for dragonflies are, compared to those of butterflies.  I had not thought about it before, but it is true.

Butterfly common names are largely nouns, based on markings on the wings of the butterflies:  checkerspots, crescents, gossamer-wings, commas, tortoiseshells.  Swallowtails and hairstreaks refer to projections at the rear end of the wings.  The names get a little more creative when they refer to positions of social status among people:  monarchs, regal, soldiers, admirals, sachem, emperors.  Some refer to geographic regions—arctics and alpines.  Many of the names are colors—whites, sulfurs, blues.  Then of course you have the bronze copper, the gray copper, the purplish copper, the blue copper, and the ruddy copper.


But dragonfly and damselfly common names are often verbs (technically intransitive verbs—the verb is part of the name):  dancers, skimmers, darners, cruisers, gliders, and even one called the dragon hunter.  Only the skippers among the butterflies are verbs.

Even when the name does not include a verb, the dragonfly and damselfly names command our attention.  There are jewel wings, forktails, and sprites among the damselflies.  Dragonfly names include clubtail, spiketail, snaketails, and meadowhawks.  Widow skimmers and Halloween pennants appeal to our fear of death.   Maybe the name I like best is shadowdragon.

Butterflies please us.  Dragonflies frighten us.



About the roused bear

Nature photographer from central Iowa.
This entry was posted in butterflies, damselflies, dragonflies, insects, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Butterflies are Nouns, Dragonflies are Verbs

  1. theresagreen says:

    Thank you for that delightful and informative post! Your American common names are slightly different to our British ones, but I hadn’t considered the ‘fear factor’ in connection with dragonflies. Of course you’re absolutely right; another common name for dragonflies here used to be ‘the devil’s darning needles’. I would like to reblog your post if that’s OK with you?

  2. Pingback: Little grebes and emperor dragonfly’s eggs | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  3. Thanks for the good words, roused bear. My colleague Sid Dunkle and I made up those names about 20 years ago, and they have been the official names of North American Odonata since then. The butterfly people, I have heard, are still arguing about names. 😉

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