Q: I’m always reluctant to challenge the great and all-knowing Answer Man, but I have to ask about your trivia answer concerning the origin of the word “butterfly.” I’ve heard they used to be called flutterbys, which was changed to butterflies because it flowed more gracefully off the tongue. Besides, they do more fluttering than buttering. Truth?
M.D., of Belleville
A: Sounds like you’ve been listening to too many Capitol Steps CDs.
If you’re not familiar, it’s one of the funniest comedy troupes around, producing hilarious songs of political satire that have been skewering both right and left since 1981. They end many of their albums with a song filled with spoonerisms that they call “Lirty Dies.” These have included such classics as “A Lunch of Boozers,” “Picking Our Breast and Bightest” and “Copular Pulture.” Its latest recording — “Orange is the New Barack” — boasts (with apologies to the Pointer Sisters) “I Want a Man with a Small Hand,” “Wake Me Up in Mar-A-Lago” (ala Wham!) and wraps up with “Tronald Dump and Clillary Hinton.”
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So while your theory of the letter shuffle might sound plausible, I can say uncategorically that someone was pulling your antennae. Don’t worry, though, you’re not the first. Patricia O’Connor and Stewart Kellerman, who run www.grammarphobia.com, once dealt with a similar questioner who had heard that a tongue-tied English VIP once turned flutterby into butterfly and the mistake caught the public’s fancy.
In truth, “butterfly” is about as old as English words come. According to “The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology,” you can date “butterfly” back at least to the year 700, when Britons still were speaking Old English. The Oxford English Dictionary offers citations from the year 1000, when “buttorfleoge” appeared in the works of Aelfric, an Anglo-Saxon abbot and sage. Since then, it has been used by all the great writers, including Chaucer and Shaksespeare. “So we'll live, and pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh at gilded butterflies,” King Lear says late in the final act.
On the other hand, the closest thing the Grammarphobes found to flutterby was this 2000 OED reference to a childhood poem for the word “pillock,” an obscure North English term for penis: “Why did the butterfly flutter by? Because she saw the caterpillar wave his pillock at her.”
I think I’ll stand by my original answer that the English called them butterflies because the ones in most abundance were yellow like butter.
Q: While I enjoyed your recent answer about “The East St. Louis Blues,” I’d like you to know that in the 1920s Duke Ellington recorded a song called “The East St. Louis Toodle-Oo.”
Bestine Tourijigian, of East St. Louis, et al.
A: Sometimes I just can’t win. Usually I’m accused of overstuffing my columns with irrelevant and arcane details. So, of course, the one time I decide to omit something because it doesn’t quite match the question, I get a half-dozen calls and emails (which I really appreciated, don’t get me wrong).
You’ll have to trust me that I am a particular fan of “The East St. Louis Toodle-Oo” because in 1974, one of my all-time favorite groups — Steely Dan — put it on its “Pretzel Logic” album. In fact, it was the only instrumental that the three-time Grammy winner would ever record on an album, according to music historians.
But as you note, it originally was written by Ellington and trumpeter Bubber Miley way back in 1926. It would become Ellington’s first charting single when Ellington, 27, redid it in March 1927 for Columbia Records under the moniker Duke Ellington and His Washingtonians. Some say it was Ellington’s original theme song.
For Steely Dan’s update, Walter Becker used a talk box to re-create the sound of Miley’s muted trumpet while Jeff “Skunk” Baxter used his pedal steel guitar to do the trombone. Ironically, three months after “Pretzel Logic” was released in February 1974, Ellington died of lung cancer and pneumonia at age 74. And, sadly, Walter Carl Becker died just last month at age 67.
You can enjoy both versions at www.YouTube.com.
Who is usually credited for inventing the modern talk box, which allows musicians to apply vocal sounds to the sound of their guitars?
Answer to Wednesday’s trivia: Of all the people in history, it was Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party who started the tradition of the Olympic torch relay. On May 13, 1931, the International Olympic Committee awarded the 1936 games to Berlin, two years before Hitler became chancellor. In fact, Hitler was at first uninterested in the games, calling them “an invention of Jews and Freemasons.” But he loved pomp and propaganda and was eventually convinced the event would help his prestige. So after sports administrator Carl Diem devised the idea, Hitler threw his support behind the relay. It saw 3,422 runners carry the Krupp-manufactured torch 1,980 miles from Olympia, Greece, to the Berlin stadium, where Hitler had made his entrance to the music of Richard Strauss while Leni Riefenstahl recorded it all for her 1938 film, “Olympia.”