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College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences


Smart Stuff with Twig Walkingstick: Spreading Better Butter Words (for the Week of Sept. 7, 2008)

September 8, 2008

Q. Dear Twig: Why do they call it butter?


A. It has to do with cows, it seems. Here's the story in a rich, creamery nutshell:

A long time ago, the Greek words bous, meaning "ox" or "cow," and tyron, meaning "cheese," were made into a word together: boutyron — "cow-cheese." After awhile, boutyron became butyrum in Latin. After another while, butyrum became butter in German, the word we use today in English (and German).

See, butter, as you probably know, is made out of milk. And milk, as you probably also know, comes from cows. So, cow, cow-cheese, boutyron, butyrum, it adds up to be good on toast.

People drink goat, sheep and yak milk, too. (Well, some do.) And also make goat, sheep and yak butter from it. But "butter" the word and butter the butter — the kind you get with your lunch at school, the kind your mom or dad buys at the supermarket — both got their start with the cow.

Yak butter, yes, I would like some.



P.S. Q: How do you know if there's an elephant in your refrigerator? A: Footprints in the butter!


Sources included The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology; the Online Etymology Dictionary,; and Webster's New World College Dictionary. There's mention in the Oxford Dictionary of the Old English word butere and the Old High German butera before the German butter came to be. Also, the Online Etymology Dictionary says boutyron might have been borrowed from the Scythian language.

Etymology is the study of the development of words. Entomology, meanwhile, is the study of, yep, insects.

Yak link:

About This:

"Smart Stuff with Twig Walkingstick," published by The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences — specifically, by the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC) and Ohio State University Extension, the research and outreach arms, respectively, of the College — is a weekly feature for children about science, nature, farming and the environment. It's written at, to and for a 4th-grade reading level.

For details, to ask Twig a question, and/or to receive the column free by mail or e-mail, contact Kurt Knebusch, CommTech, OSU/OARDC,1680 Madison Ave., Wooster, OH 44691,, (330) 263-3776.

Online at


Kurt Knebusch