What’s in a name? Melangaria galathea, the marbled white, sometimes called the half-mourner or chequered white, is actually a member of the Browns family. They are Satyrinae, a subfamily of the Nymphalidae, brush-footed butterflies. When Carl Linnaeus originally assigned names to the butterflies he had identified, he placed them into families and genus with distinctively Greek and Roman mythological origins. I love thinking of these beautiful insects as nymphs, sylphs and satyrs! It’s so very appropriate.
The name galathea most likely comes from the Nereid, Galatea. One of fifty sea-nymphs of Greek mythology, daughters of Nereus (son of Gaia) and Doris the sea goddess. Galatea means she who is milk-white. The name was also given to the statue of woman by Pygmalion of Cyprus, who came to life in Greek mythology. When roosting, these beautiful butterflies are most certainly statuesque! They are usually found on moist, chalky ground in southern England, were they can gather in large numbers in July. It really is an amazing sight! Another amazing fact about the marbled white is that they are drawn to purple flowers, usually seen feeding on wild oregano, knapweed and thistles.
While a young coot chick might look pretty bald, this is not actually the origins of the phrase. It’s in reference to the white frontal shield of the adult coot (see image below). This similarly applies to the name of the Bald Eagle, which has a fine head of white feathers. Bald also appears in the word Piebald, referring to horses, birds and other animals that are black and white. So where does this word for white actually come from? Annabel Rushton sheds some light on this in the RSPB community blog:
You often hear the phrase ‘bald as a coot’, but as you can see from the photo, they are covered in feathers. Even the chick, though a little sparse on its head, has a flame of red and orange down. So where has the saying come from? Well the word ‘bald’ is actually derived from an old English word ‘bala’ which means ‘white patch’. If you look at a coot, they have a white patch above their beak known as a ‘knob’ or a ‘frontal shield’. It is this that has given rise to the term ‘bald as a coot’, rather than because they are featherless.
Coot and chick at Claremont Landscape Gardens
The Idioms website adds:
A coot is a water bird which has marking on its head that gives it an appearance of being bald. It does have feathers on his head but it is the way it looks from a distance that gives this expression its shape.
This phrase has been in existence since several centuries with the first literary use being in 1430 in ‘Chronicle of Troy’ written by John Lydgate.