cat·er·pil·lar (kăt’ər-pīl′ər, kăt’ə-)
n. 1) The wormlike larva of a butterfly or moth. 2) Any of various insect larvae similar to those of the butterfly or moth.
[Middle Englishcatirpel, catirpeller, probably alteration of Old North French*catepelose : cate, cat (from Latincattus) + pelose, hairy (from Latinpilōsus; see PILOSE(Cf. pilose)).]
Word History: Larvae of moths and butterflies are popularly seen as resembling other, larger animals. Consider the Italian dialect word gatta, "cat, caterpillar"; the German dialect term tüfelskatz, "caterpillar" (literally "devil's cat"); the French word chenille, "caterpillar" (from a Vulgar Latin diminutive, *canīcula, of canis, "dog"); and last but not least, our own word caterpillar, which appears probably to have come from an unattested Old North French word *catepelose, meaning literally "hairy cat." Our word caterpillar is first recorded in English in 1440 in the form catyrpel. Catyr, the first part of catyrpel, may indicate the existence of an English word *cater, meaning "tomcat," otherwise attested only in caterwaul. *Cater would be cognate with Middle High German kater and Dutch kater. The latter part of catyrpel seems to have become associated with the word piller, "plunderer." By giving the variant spelling –ar, Samuel Johnson's influential Dictionary set the spelling caterpillar with which we are familiar today.
death's-head hawkmoth caterpillar
Acherontia atropos

Word Histories. 2014.


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