Word Matters Podcast

How the Ladybug Got Its Name

Episode 23: Who Put the 'Lady' in 'Ladybug'?

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Etymology meets entomology this week (at last!) as we dive into just how the ladybug got its name. Then, we look at the curious, similar pairing of the words 'transmissible' and 'transmittable.'

Download the episode here.


(intro music – “Build Something Beautiful” by Tobias Voigt)

(teaser clips)

Peter Sokolowski: I sometimes think of vocabulary as being the Darwinian test case for the survival of words.

Emily Brewster: And it is a ladybug because of a very particular lady.

(music break)

Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters, the lady in ladybug and a pair of distinct but hard-to-distinguish adjectives. I'm Emily Brewster and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode Merriam-Webster editors, Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski, and I explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point. Consider the humble ladybug. Today we are finally exploring the intersection of etymology and entomology with an examination of this beloved beetle's common appellation. Join me for a dig into the story of how the ladybug got its name.

I have a favorite insect. My favorite insect is the ladybug.

Neil Serven: It's a pretty insect.

Ammon Shea: Good choice.

Emily Brewster: Yeah. Yeah, they're good. They eat aphids, which is helpful. They do good jobs in gardens. They are cute. They are so cute that people put them on dish towels and all kinds of other housewares and clothing and whatnot. There are no gentlemanbugs, although ladybugs are both male and female, yes. The lady bugs, it's clear that the bug part comes from the bug as referring to an insect. Ladybugs are beetles, which means that, with weevils, they make up the largest order of insects, coleoptera. The lady part, though, I was really curious about. And so I did some research about why is it a ladybug, right? And it is a ladybug because of a very particular lady: the Virgin Mary. It was often called Our Lady of-

Ammon Shea: The Bug.

Emily Brewster: (laughs) Our lady of many things, right? But that is where the word ladybug comes from. The lady part is a reference to Mary, the mother of Jesus. The story of this is pretty interesting. To think about ladybugs, there are apparently 5,000 varieties of ladybugs. They are all members of the family, Coccinellidae. The color of the wing covers and the number of spots vary for them. But the first ladybug to be referred to as a ladybug was a common European ladybug that had seven spots. And the seven spots on the ladybug were understood as corresponding to the seven sorrows of Mary.

Ammon Shea: It's a good thing they didn't give us seven sins, because sinbug doesn't have quite the same ring to it, does it?

Emily Brewster: No, it really doesn't, really doesn't. Seven sorrows of Mary. Do you want to hear them all?

Peter Sokolowski: Yes.

Ammon Shea: Please. Yeah.

Emily Brewster: I got them all. Okay. The first sorrow is the prophecy of Simeon and Anna. And this is a prophecy when Mary and Joseph took Jesus to be blessed in a temple and Simeon and Anna, it was mostly Simeon actually, who explained that things ahead for Jesus and for Mary were not going to be always pleasant. That was the first sorrow. And specifically that Mary's soul was going to be pierced by a sword. The second sorrow was the flight into Egypt. They had to flee Bethlehem and go to Egypt because King Herod was behaving abominably and killing all of the boys. The third sorrow was when Jesus was lost for three days. And then his parents found him in a temple. They were in a big group of people. They had been visiting this temple. They left three days later. They realized he's not in the caravan with them. So they go back and they find him. And he is in the temple being taught and asking really good questions and just learning in this temple. But that horrible situation of being a parent who doesn't know where your child is for three days. The fourth sorrow is when Jesus was condemned to die. The fifth sorrow is the actual crucifixion. The sixth is the retrieval of Jesus's body. And the seventh is the burial of Jesus. So these are the seven sorrows of Mary. And English speakers applied the word ladybug to this bug, I think as a way to kind of meditate on the idea of Mary and her sorrows while they were out gardening or just out in the world. It was this connection between their spiritual beliefs and the natural world.

Ammon Shea: I had no idea there was so much history on the back of the bug.

Emily Brewster: Yes. Well, and there are other names for the ladybug. In American English, ladybug is used almost exclusively, but in British English ladybird is probably the more common word.

Neil Serven: They don't consider that a misnomer? I mean, it's not a bird obviously.

Emily Brewster: No, it's not. But they don't really care, and the English language historically hasn't really cared because they have also historically been called ladycows.

Ammon Shea: They have been called ladycows?

Emily Brewster: Not the British speakers of English, but the ladybugs have been called ladycows.

Ammon Shea: Oh, okay. But not the British...

Emily Brewster: (laughs) That's right.

Peter Sokolowski: It's more like a beetle than a bird.

Emily Brewster: It is more like a beetle than a bird. So ladybug we can definitely get behind as, you know, if you have to choose between bird and bug. But English doesn't really need to care that these names are perfectly appropriate in that way.

Ammon Shea: Otherwise we'd be going with ladycoleoptera and that's no fun.

Emily Brewster: That's right.

Neil Serven: It is interesting though that we have pursued this very deep story for this name and for this creature to go as far as explaining the spots and everything. I don't think other creatures really get that same depth of their origins. I don't know what cricket comes from or anything like that. But a grasshopper is obvious, why it's called a grasshopper. Mosquito, I believe it is "little fly."

Ammon Shea: We do have praying mantis, which has got some nod to the religious there.

Emily Brewster: Right. But you can tell that it's from the behavior, right? The mantis looks like it is praying. But I wonder when English speakers stopped connecting the ladybug to Mary and the seven sorrows. I never had any inkling that there was any connection between the word ladybug and the Virgin Mary.

Neil Serven: I suppose the only connection I would've made as a child is just that it's pretty, maybe it was only females had certain markings that male insects didn't. I don't know if I would have gone that far even, but it never occurred to me to question why it wasn't a gent bug or why there was no comparable gent bug or guy bug or-

Peter Sokolowski: It's associated also with the Volkswagen beetle because we call it the beetle in English. The French word for the Volkswagen beetle is Coccinelle.

Ammon Shea: Coccinelle?

Peter Sokolowski: Which obviously is just the French version of the Latin genus name.

Emily Brewster: Yeah. There was a period in my life when I really wanted to get a red Volkswagen beetle and paint a black dot on either side, I did.

Ammon Shea: There was a period of my life when I just got ladybugs because I loved to garden. And I was planning on overwintering, meaning taking out from the ground and bringing into my apartment a bunch of hot pepper plants. So I brought about 10 or 12 hot pepper plants and potted them and brought them into a New York city apartment. And very quickly realized, of course, I also brought the aphids with me. Then I discovered that if you go online, you can just buy ladybugs. And they're quite reasonable for buying bugs in the mail. So I bought 500 of them and they ship them to you in a little container. And then I just let them go in my apartment. And then I had 500 ladybugs in my apartment all winter, and they really did the job they were advertised to do, which they really cleaned up the aphids. But then I had to worry about the ladybugs, they were my responsibility.

Neil Serven: Did your lease allow for pets?

Ammon Shea: There was no mention made of it. It's so funny because especially in a New York city apartment, when you see bugs your first thought is not, oo that's nice. But with ladybugs, it really is heartwarming.

Peter Sokolowski: And there's no downside. I mean, they don't bite.

Ammon Shea: Unless you're an aphid, there's no downside and they try to let them all go once it warmed up. But they had enough aphids to keep them going all winter.

Peter Sokolowski: No kidding.

Ammon Shea: Yeah.

Emily Brewster: I do know the poem, "ladybug, ladybug fly away home, tour house is on fire, your children are gone." It's such a downer. This whole story is just a real downer. But I do know the origin of that also. It alludes to a post harvest event in England. After the fields of hops had been cleared, they would set fire to the whole thing.

Ammon Shea: Wow. I had a different version. I thought it was "fly away your children are alone." Not "your children are gone." Your version is a little darker than the one I grew up with.

Emily Brewster: Super dark. I'm going to teach yours to my kids.

Ammon Shea: The rest is like "your fields have been salted and your people have been put to the sword and your temples have been burned. And all memory of you has been erased from the history." It goes on like that, I suppose. Right?

Emily Brewster: Probably.

Peter Sokolowski: And we just think of them as cute little bugs.

Emily Brewster: You're listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster. We'll be back after the break with the difference between the lexical siblings, transmissible and transmittable. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the word of the day. A brief look at the history and definition of one word available at Merriam-Webster.com or wherever you get your podcasts. And for more podcasts from New England Public Media visit the NEPM podcast hub at nepm.org.

Neil Serven: I'm Neil Serven. Do you have a question about the origin, history or meaning of a word? Email us at wordmatters@m-w.com

Emily Brewster: Take a verb, say transmit, and use it to create an adjective, say transmittable. Now use that same verb to create another very similar adjective, transmissible. Twins like these exist in English and often maintain distinct meanings and usages. Here's Peter Sokolowski on how we ended up with the very close, but still different words, transmittable and transmissible.

Peter Sokolowski: There are forms of related words that sometimes seem almost synonymous and are used in different ways. And I sometimes think of vocabulary as being the Darwinian test case for the survival of words. Now it could be argued that any word we use today is a survivor, is a word that survived a lot of time. And some of these have survived all kinds of attacks and battles and have changed meanings over the years. But there are words with shades of meaning that are so close, that when you think about it you realize, oh, well these are almost the same or they come from the same place. For example, I have a question for you all. Do you make a distinction between the words admittable and admissible?

Ammon Shea: Sure. I use one and I don't usually use the other.

Emily Brewster: I think of one for evidence, admissible evidence. Admittable is about going to the hospital.

Peter Sokolowski: And that's what you're willing to admit.

Emily Brewster: Right.

Peter Sokolowski: Actually that's the distinction I think is natural. Admittable means "connected somehow to allow entry," like a literal entry to a place.

Emily Brewster: Admission is what you pay to get into a place.

Peter Sokolowski: And admissions to a college. If it's admissions to a college, however, is the student admittable I think would be the way you would say that because we would naturally think admissible is more connected to non tangible things like evidence, right?

Emily Brewster: Right. So why is that?

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah. They fall in different places. It's interesting that since Samuel Johnson in his dictionary in 1755, he actually makes that distinction that we're making right now that admittable has to do with allowing entry. But admissible has to do with allowing ideas or evidence or facts.

Ammon Shea: The secret truth of Merriam-Webster is that we're all closet Johnsonians.

Peter Sokolowski: Well, there's nothing wrong with that.

Ammon Shea: Don't tell anybody.

Emily Brewster: But how funny, right, that admission to a school or admission to a movie or something, that that is the admission with the two s's is not corresponded to a verb with s's.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah, because admissible is far more frequently used than the word admittable, which is clearly a predictable form and understandable. And yet, if you were to do a corporate search, you'd find that admissible is more common. Well, here's the second question. How about the distinction between permittable and permissible?

Neil Serven: I would say I use permissible a lot more just generally. I don't think I would use permittable in many circumstances at all.

Emily Brewster: I feel like permittable would be about able to be issued a permit.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah. But like permittable, not permittable, sort of satisfying the requirements for a permit. Permittable architectural plans, for example. So that it's a super narrow sense. whereas permissible is the general one. Here's another one: transmittable and transmissible.

Neil Serven: Transmittable sounds like radios.

Peter Sokolowski: That's right.

Ammon Shea: Capable of being transmitted.

Emily Brewster: Transmissible is just the terror.

Ammon Shea: Exactly.

Peter Sokolowski: Transmissible is one that has a meaning, I think, that we associate with medical contexts today.

Neil Serven: Contagious diseases, that kind of thing.

Peter Sokolowski: Absolutely. Like the transmissible virus obviously, is something we're concerned with in recent months. But "the disease is not transmissible," for example. That context is interesting. And basically all of these are parallel forms. They're interesting forms that come from Latin terms. Just to get a little into the grammar of this, at the infinitive forms of these etymons of the Latin roots of these verbs had the T spellings. So it was admitere, permitere, transmitere. But the past participles of these had the S spellings, admisus, permisus, transmisus. And the problem with the English use of these words is that this happens so often in the early modern period, the 16th, 17th century. People who knew Latin really well corrected the people who borrowed these terms in the first place. And so some of these past participles, which were in Latin formed with the S version had been already formed in English with the T version. And that's why we have these parallel forms. And what's interesting about these is that they were all used in a parallel way and sometimes in different ways. Transmissible originally was the legal use. In other words, your property was transmissible to your heirs in the 16th, 17th century. And that has shifted with modern medicine and modern language to being almost entirely medical in use.

Ammon Shea: It shifted when those not really having any property to leave their heirs as well, it's become non-necessary word as time's gone on.

Emily Brewster: I know, now when I hear transmissible and heirs, I'm picturing A-I-R-S.

Ammon Shea: Right. Disease and oxygen and don't breathe on me.

Peter Sokolowski: Transmittable. How would you use that?

Neil Serven: Transmittable is what I think with the radio.

Emily Brewster: That's right, broadcasting.

Peter Sokolowski: Broadcasting our data maybe. So, in other words, these words in kind of a Darwinian way have fallen into their usage over the centuries into different places. So much so that these essentially parallel forms that were formed from identical etymologies still end up being used as useful distinctions in English. We still have omit and submit. There is omissible and there is subsmissible.

Neil Serven: Submissible is a word?

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah. But there's very little evidence of submittable.

Neil Serven: Well, it's fine because there's a website, a program called Submittable, which people use to upload manuscripts and documents.

Peter Sokolowski: Exactly. That's the way it's used, to present or propose something for consideration, to submit something.

Neil Serven: It strikes me that the ones that stick to the miss-spellings, like the admissible evidence and transmissible diseases, they seem to have scholarship of long traditions. And so that might be why there's more of an inclination to adhere to Latin properties.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah.

Neil Serven: Whereas transmittable, you're dealing with radio. Radio a couple centuries old invention, not even. So the language of that isn't necessarily going to have a need to adhere to these Latin properties. So people use the verb transmit, the word transmit entered the vocabulary of radio when you needed something to describe something that was capable of being transmitted. Instead of going back to the Latin, you just hacked on the -able suffix, which you probably already knew from many other words. And then transmittable became this perfectly suitable word for what you needed that was different from transmissible.

Peter Sokolowski: Absolutely. You're making me think of something, which is permittable and admittable both have this concrete idea. Permit would be a sheet of paper, some kind of legal document and admittable would mean you walk through a doorway or you would be actually admitted to a place. That's interesting that we have figured out some kinds of distinctions on our own. And again, I use this term Darwinian. Maybe that's not the right linguistic term, but English has had our choice of these forms and we chose to keep them all. And that's interesting all by itself.

Neil Serven: Well I think your point is that certain words get to survive and others don't. Is that what you're going after?

Peter Sokolowski: What I mean also is that they isolate themselves in their usage and meanings.

Ammon Shea: Life's not fair and neither is English.

Emily Brewster: Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us on Apple Podcasts or email us at wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us at nepm.org and for the word of the day and all your general dictionary needs visit Merriam-Webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt, artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by Adam Maid and John Voci. For Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

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