Q&A: ‘Buttered up’, ‘having butterflies’, ‘butter wouldn’t melt’

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Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, it’s giving us butterflies just thinking about it…

Q: Hi AWC, remember how we discussed the term “to curry favour” recently?

A: Yes – here’s the conversation right here

Q: Yeah, well it got me thinking about a similar phrase – “to butter someone up”. Why do we say that? It sounds rather cannibalistic!

A: Actually this phrase has rather interesting origins – coming from India, one of the places butter was first used widely.

Q: India you say? Surely it’s not related to butter chicken?

A: No curry favours this time we’re afraid. The idea of “buttering up” meaning “to flatter lavishly” appeared at the end of the 18th century and comes from an ancient Hindu tradition of throwing balls of ghee butter at statues of gods in order to ask for favours.

Q: Wow, they literally buttered them up.

A: Would you like some other butter facts while you’re here?

Q: Spread the word!

A: Okay, did you know that the clumsy adjective “butter-fingered” term dates back to 1610? Yet it wasn’t until the 1830s that a person was called “butterfingers”.

Q: I did NOT know that.

A: Here’s another. The term “bread and butter” started off around the 1700s simply meaning “ordinary”, but evolved to mean someone’s livelihood by the 1800s. For example, “this kind of work was his bread and butter”.

Q: My uncle Jack has a bread and butter job. He works the front table at the Bunnings sausage sizzle…

A: Right, okay. 

Q: What about butterflies? How’d they get their names?

A: There are a few theories on this, but the most likely is simply the pale yellow colour wing colour that most butterflies have.

Q: Can’t you at least make up something exciting about India and statues?

A: Sorry.

Q: Well, how about when I get “butterflies in my stomach”.

A: We’ve told you to stop running in the garden with your mouth open…

Q: Oh ha ha.

A: Seriously though, the term “butterflies in the stomach” (often shortened to simply “having butterflies”) originated around 1908 but was initially associated with sadness. It seems to have morphed to nervousness by the 1940s. 

Q: But why butterflies?

A: Simply a nicer way to describe “small stomach spasms”.

Q: Fair enough. Any other butterfly trivia to share?

A: Oh, lots! The ‘butterfly’ swimming stroke was invented in the 1930s. The “butterfly effect” was first proposed by a meteorologist in 1972 in describing weather and chaos theory. And finally (but much earlier), the term “social butterfly” first appeared in the American Quarterly Review in 1837 probably in relation to how the insects flit from flower to flower.

Q: Finally, what does the phrase “butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth” actually mean?

A: A lot of people get this confused. When it first appeared in the 1500s, it meant that someone was “cold and emotionless” (because butter wouldn’t melt in something that’s cold, right?) – evolving to mean someone who acts demure or “prim and proper” even when they’re not.

Q: Why the confusion?

A: Many people started using “butter wouldn’t melt” to simply mean “prim and proper” or “sweet and innocent” without any insincere undertones. That’s why you’d often see a negative twist added, such as, “you’d think butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth, but behind closed doors she’s wicked” etc.

Q: So it should be the original?

A: Yes! Saying “butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth” already has the negative twist built into it. Macquarie Dictionary defines it as “an expression indicating that someone is feigning innocence”. Because of all the confusion however, we’d suggest avoiding using it altogether!

Q: I’ll just stick to buttering people up…

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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