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Peter Marren – Emperors, Admirals and Chimney Sweepers: The naming of butterflies and moths

29/06/2019 @ 11:45 12:45

Peter Marren is one of the country’s most celebrated naturalists and author of books including Chasing the Ghost, Bugs Britannica and Rainbow Dust. His latest book, Emperors, Admirals and Chimney Sweepers is the first comprehensive guide to the names of butterflies and moths.

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-sweeps. 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.

Peter Marren 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.