The lady part of the word is in reference to the Virgin Mary. There are two main reasons for this. The first is that Mary was often painted wearing a red veil in early depictions of her. The second reason is the spots. The most common ladybird species in Europe is a variety with seven spots, and these were seen as representing the seven joys and seven sorrows of the Virgin Mary. Thus it become known as Our Lady’s bird, or the Lady’s beetle.
Both words appear to have originated in England, although ladybug has become more popular across the Atlantic. The earliest citations are for ladybird, from 1674, with ladybug found a short while afterwards, from 1699.
A Short Trip with the Ladybird
In German, the ladybird has a similar name to its English counterpart; Marienkäfer related to the Virgin Mary.
Following on from this, we have the Greek word paschalitsa (πασχαλίτσα), which means “little Easter”, probably in reference to the time of year they are most visible.
The French word is coccinelle, which is very similar to the Italian coccinella. Both words, as you might expect, come from Latin – coccinus, meaning “scarlet”, derived from coccum – a berry used to make scarlet dye, ultimately from Greek kokkos (κόκκος), meaning “grain, seed, berry”. Another French expression is bête à Bon Dieu, “the good God’s animal”.
Here I shall introduce the Portuguese word, joaninha, which is a diminutive of “Joanne”, so it means “little Joanne”!
From there we go to Spanish, where the ladybird is known as mariquita. This is a diminutive of Maria, and is linked with the Virgin Mary, probably in a similar way to the English word. However, the Spanish tale does not end there! In Argentinian Spanish, the ladybird is known as Vaquita de San Antonio, which literally means “St. Anthony’s heifer or small cow”! Why a cow, you might ask, and why St Anthony? Why indeed. There is a lovely little myth attached to this. The story goes that there was a cow heading for a ladybird nest, and St. Anthony rushed in to stop it and save the ladybirds, earning himself a kick from the cow in the process, and this has been honoured ever since in the name of the ladybird. Funny story it might be, but there is really nothing to indicate that it might be true!
But that brings us nicely on to Welsh, in which we find the name buwch goch gota, which means “small red cow”, so they obviously agree with the Argentinians. Also in Welsh, the ladybird may be known as pryf bach yr haf, which translates as “little summer bug”, and in some regions a poetic version is ladi fach yr haf, or “little summer lady”.
Over to another Celtic language, in Scottish Gaelic we find daolag-bhreac, which translates literally as “speckled beetle”.
Finally, similar to the Scottish Gaelic, there is the Slovenian word, pikapolonica, which has a lovely ring to it, and means “spotty bug”. Succinct and to the point. The best description yet.