I was sitting outside working the other day when a ladycow came for a visit. It alit on the table next to my computer, then crawled up the side of the case and paused for a respite at the top; at last, and suddenly, it flew away.
“Wait,” I hear you saying. “That’s not a ladycow, that’s a…”
…a what? What you call it depends on where you’re from. If you’re from Canada or the US, you probably call it a ladybug. If you’re from England or most of the rest of the English-speaking world, you probably call it a ladybird. A few people call it a ladycow, or even a cow-lady, and some at least used to call it a ladyfly.
All of these names have something in common with pineapple: they are compounds of two roots, neither of which correctly names the object.
A ladycow is, of course, neither a cow nor a lady. When you call it a ladybird, it is still not a bird. And, strictly speaking, it is also neither a fly nor – at least in the entomologists’ sense – a bug. It’s a beetle! A pretty little red beetle. A member of the Coccinellidae family, which is so named because of their scarlet colour; if you go down the rabbit hole of the etymology of Coccinellidae you arrive eventually at Greek κόκκος, which refers to a grain, seed, or berry, but especially a scarlet berry, or the colour scarlet, or a dye made from crushing scarlet beetles.
I said that the names were compounds of two roots, but really lady is itself originally two roots: it comes from Old English hlæfdige, ‘loaf-kneader’. This little beetle that visited me did make some gestures a bit like kneading a loaf while it was resting, but many insects do that, and it’s not exactly what this one is known for. So why all this lady? It’s referring to Our Lady, the Blessèd Virgin Mary, who was sometimes depicted wearing scarlet and who, though immaculate, had seven sorrows, which are reflected by the seven spots (maculae, you could say) on the best-known kinds of ladybug. Some other languages have similar associations for it: German Marienkäfer and Spanish mariquita name it for Mary; Russian божья коровка names it for God; Dutch lieveheersbeestje names it for the “dear lord” (lord, by the way, comes from hlæfweard, ‘loaf-guardian’ – you see, nobles really are well bread!).
OK, but why bird? Well, it does fly… and some regional German and Swedish names for it call it a ‘hen’. And it’s so much prettier than the average insect, no? As lovely to see as a bird?
OK, but why cow?
I mean, uh… why not… ? Cows eat grass and, uh…
Well, ladycows mostly don’t eat grass. Most kinds of them eat smaller insects, such as aphids. (Some years ago, a surplus of aphids in Ontario’s wine region led to a surplus of ladybugs, which in turn lent a marked flavour to the wine, because you can’t easily remove them all from the grapes before crushing. No word on whether they made the wine redder at the same time.) So they’re pretty, and they eat insects… how about ladyfrog? No? Some frogs look awfully similar. Well, then, why not ladycat?
But neither of those has been used. Ladycow, on the other hand, showed up in the 1500s and is apparently still used on occasion.
I’ll say this: I’m sure glad it wasn’t any other kind of cow stepping all over my computer.