Wednesday, 18 December 2013


The spelling of this word conceals its origins in the French word chatepelose: a combination of the words chat ‘cat’ and pelose ‘hairy’.  Etymologically, therefore, a caterpillar is a hairy cat.  The word is first recorded in English in the 15th century, with the spelling catyrpel; in the 16th century it began to be written catirpiller and catterpiller, probably owing to a false association with the word piller meaning ‘plunderer’ or ‘ravager’.  Since caterpillars ravage leaves and plants, this may have seemed an appropriate way to refer to them, especially by frustrated gardeners.  As a consequence, the two words, caterpillar and piller, became synonymous; this helps to explain otherwise puzzling references, such as Hugh Latimer’s warning, in a sermon of 1552, against ‘covetous persons, extorcioners, oppressours, catirpillers, userers’.  Either that, or Latimer really disliked caterpillars.

Following this logic, the modern spelling of this word ought to be caterpiller rather than caterpillar.  But, as so often with English spelling, the fault lies with Dr Johnson, who employed a rare variant spelling caterpillar for the headword in his Dictionary of the English Language (1755), ignoring the fact that it was consistently spelled caterpiller in the quotations he included.  Johnson’s endorsement of the spelling led to its widespread adoption, causing it to become accepted as the standard spelling today.  However, there are those who prefer to stick rigidly to the earlier spelling.  The website of St Martin’s Academy Chester advertises its Very Hungry Caterpiller Day; the Wild Ryedale website offers updates concerning the Mullien Moth Caterpiller; the Landscape Britain website shifts randomly between caterpillar and caterpiller.  Michael K. Brown’s book The Caterpiller’s Hat proudly vaunts the misspelling in its title.  One anonymous questioner posted the following query to the forum: ‘How long does it take for a caterpiller to turn into a butterflie’; his revival of archaic spellings for both caterpillar and butterfly suggests either a laudable commitment to the revival of archaic spellings, or a poor grasp of modern spelling conventions.