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Spring words to fling

Cobweb

A "cob" may be a swan, a gull, or even a horse, but it is not a spider. A cobweb, however, is a common term for a spider's handiwork, and predates "spiderweb" by 200 years. It derives from the Old English word for spiders, "attercoppes," literally "poison heads," for in the Middle Ages it was a common belief that spiders were poisonous. Eventually the word "copweb" appeared, and with slurring over the years, that woven snare we occasionally walk through became a cobweb.

Buttercup

These flashy roadside flowers were named by farmers. Centuries ago, English dairy farmers believed that if a cow ate these little yellow meadow blossoms, the butter and cream the cow produced would have the same rich color.

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The truth is that buttercups don't contribute to the quality of dairy products. They grow only in good pastureland, however, and the cows do the rest. Its scientific name, Ranunculus, is Latin for "little frog," for most buttercups (and frogs) like moist places. In many cultures, sighting buttercups was said to bring not only good milk but also good fortune.

Butterfly

This insect's etymology has caused wild speculation among word experts for centuries. Eighteenth-century lexicographer Samuel Johnson explained the "butter" in butterfly by noting that spring is the season in which butterflies appear - when butter is first churned. A more popular theory refers to medieval folklore, in which fairies were said to turn into butterflies and steal, of all things, butter.

SOURCES: 'Hedgemaids and Fairy Candles,' by Jack Sanders; 'Who Put the Butter in Butterfly?' by David Feldman.