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ladybird

Ladybirds, ladybugs, and… cows?

When this article was in the brainstorming stage, it started with the simple intention of pointing out that a ladybird was neither a bird nor a lady (I don’t mean to impugn the ladybird’s reputation; I am speaking of the definition rather than the insect’s moral character). Along the way we thought we’d point out the discrepancy between ladybird and ladybug, and perhaps that would be it. Little did we realize the linguistic journey this investigation would take us on…

Lady what now?

Let’s clear up that transatlantic variation first of all. The small, domed beetles of the family Coccinellidae (such as the one featured in the image above) are usually known as ladybugs or lady beetles in North America, and ladybirds in Britain and elsewhere. But that’s not the only name they’ve been given over the years.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED)’s first recorded use of the word ‘ladybird’ is from a 1674 glossary of southern English words. The author describes how the regional word bishop is the term for ‘the little spotted beetle commonly called the Lady cow, or Lady-bird’. Ladybug followed shortly after ladybird, but both terms are preceded by cow-lady and (earlier still) ladycow. Anybody who was about to point out that a ladybird isn’t a bird will have pause for thought when confronted by ladycow (I can confirm that the ladybird is also not a cow); it is thought perhaps to have a parallel in the Middle English Godyscow (‘God’s cow’), which may have denoted the same insect. Things get all the more complex when you learn that, also in the 17th century, a cow-lady could describe a fly (real or artificial) used by anglers.

Neither one nor the other

So, since the ladybird is neither bird nor lady, where does the name come from? Let’s start with bird. It has been argued that bird is actually a folk-etymological alteration of budde (a word apparently applied to different kinds of insect in Middle English), but it is generally considered more likely that bird simply refers to the insect’s winged nature and flying abilities, as is evident in other European languages such as German, which calls the ladybird Frauenhenne, ‘the lady’s hen’.

Lady demands a greater step. This apparently refers to the seven spots of the Coccinella septempunctata, which were popularly supposed to symbolize the seven pains of the Virgin Mary. The link between the Virgin Mary and the insect’s name has been drawn more clearly in the Swedish regional jungfru Mariae höna and jungfru Marias gullhöna, literally ‘Virgin Mary’s hen’ and ‘Virgin Mary’s golden hen’ respectively, and the German Marienkäfer (‘Mary’s beetle’). Ladybird may therefore mean ‘(Our) Lady’s bird’.

The first ladybird

To make things even more complicated, while people were still merrily pointing out ladycows in the hedgerows to one another, the word ladybird was in use – but to refer to actual ladies. The OED’s first recorded example for ladybird in any sense is  from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: ‘What Lamb, what Ladie bird / […] Wher’s this girle?’ This use is from 1597 and appears one year earlier than a rare use of ladybird to denote the butterfly (from John Florio’s dictionary, World of Words).

When referring to a woman, ladybird could be used either positively or negatively. As used by the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet, it is a term of endearment, but at the other end of the spectrum, ladybird could refer to a kept mistress, a lewd or wanton women, or a prostitute.

Bug?

In case any readers were feeling smug that ladybug is at least a partly-accurate name, it turns out that they’re also not bugs – or at least not ‘true bugs’, otherwise known as hemiptera (which have piercing and sucking mouthparts and incomplete metamorphosis). Rather, ladybirds are beetles.

If you want to dispense with figurative and (technically) inaccurate language altogether, then you can simply use the Latin-derived coccinelid, from coccineus meaning ‘scarlet’. I think we can all agree, while these insects are not ladies, birds, cows, or even bugs, they are certainly – at least usually – red.

The opinions and other information contained in OxfordWords blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.