God’s Little Cow

The other day I discovered that Ladybird in Irish is Bóín Dé which means, literally, “Little Cow of God”. I thought it a strange name for this critter, then a friend told me (via Facebook) that the Welsh is buwch goch gota which means “short red cow”. A little googling then told me that the Russian is Bozhya korovka which is in literal translation the same as the Irish, God’s Little Cow.

The more general connection with God seen in Irish and Russian is presumably to do with the Ladybird being either cute or beneficial (or both): if you’re a gardener you will certainly appreciate the help that Ladybirds offer in eliminating aphids and other garden pests. They may look cute but they are voracious predators.

I am told that the `cow’ part of the name probably comes from the spots on a Ladybird, which resemble the black patches on the hides of certain breeds of cow.

I have known for a while that the Lady in the English Ladybird refers not just to any lady but to the Virgin Mary, allegedly because the most common type of Ladybird has seven spots and the number 7 is associated with Mary, as is the colour red. The original English term was “Our Lady’s Bird” which turned into Ladybird (or Ladybug in the United States).

The connection with the Virgin Mary is more explicit in the Danish Mariehøne (Mary’s Hen). I assume the Hen is because the Ladybird would have to be a bird that can fly but not all that well. In German the word for Ladybird is Marienkäfer (Mary’s Beetle). In Spanish it is Mariquita, which I assume also has a connection with the Virgin Mary though there is another term: Vaca de San Antón , which brings us back to cows again (Vaca is Spanish for cow).

The Italian word for Ladybird is Coccinella (from the Latin Coccineus, scarlet) which is also the scientific name; the family is Coccinellidae. The standard French for a Ladybird is Coccinelle, but older terms found in dictionaries include vache à Dieu (Cow of God again) and bête à bon Dieu.

I know Ladybirds are very widespread and, to a lesser extent, so are my readers, so I’d be very interested to hear what a Ladybird is in other languages (alongside a literal translation).

16 Responses to “God’s Little Cow”

  1. Robert Lacey Says:

    Welsh: buwch goch gota [short red cow] but also buwch fach Adda [Adam’s little cow]

  2. Cesar Uliana Says:

    In portuguese this bug is known as “Joaninha”, and similarly in galician-portuguese as “Xoaniña”. Both translate as “Little Joann”. Unfortunately I’ve tried finding the etymology, but it seems to be lost in time.

  3. I have just been told that in Farsi ladybug is kafsh doozak, which literally means… shoemaker. Your guess is as good as mine!

  4. In Argentina it is called “vaquita de San Antonio” (St. Anthony’s little cow).

  5. jonivar skullerud Says:

    In Norway it is called marihøne like in Denmark, but also Maria fly-fly, or gullsmed (goldsmith), the latter especially in a childrens verse that you say when you get a ladybird on your hand:
    Gullsmed, gullsmed, fly din vei
    I morra blir det finvær!
    (Goldsmith, goldsmith, fly away/Tomorrow will have fine weather!)

    • telescoper Says:

      Goldsmith is an interesting one! I wonder what the origin of that is?

      • jonivar skullerud Says:

        I dont know! Another name is gullhøne (golden hen), and it is possible that the goldsmith is derived from that.

      • telescoper Says:

        I know that in many cultures ladybirds are considered lucky so maybe a goldsmith is also considered lucky? An alternative name in German is der Glückskäfer – lucky beetle.

    • Phillip Helbig Says:

      The Scandivnavian languages are quite close, but not here. In Swedish, my favourite language, the word is “nyckelpiga”, plural “nyckelpigor” (regular plural form for words ending in “a”).

      “Nyckel” is “key” (ultimately related to “lock”, not “nickel”; note the English word “nyckelharpa” which has been borrowed from Swedish: a musical instrument similar to a fiddle but with the strings stopped via keys). “Piga” is a female servant, like a maid. (“Pige” is just “girl” in Danish (“jenta” in Norwegian and “flicka” in Swedish). Perhaps this reflects a time when Danish girls worked as maids in Sweden?)

      Apparently also related to the Virgin Mary, who has the keys to heaven. (No jokes about being in heaven after picking a virgin’s locks.)

      Another Swedish word for it is “gullhöna”, combining the goldsmith and the Maria hen. 🙂

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        This is quicker:

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        Thread-drift gives me an excuse to post a video of a nyckelharpa:

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        Somewhat more-modern stuff on nyckelharpa; from about 0:40 you can understand why Swedish is my favourite language:

        Unlike, say, the harpsichord in some countries, in Sweden the nyckelharpa wasn’t revived by early-music afficionados, but exists in an unbroken tradition.

  6. In French, the other name for coccinelle is indeed bête à bon Dieu. In association with a Middle Ages legend, when a ladybird repeatedly landed on the neck of a prisoner about to be decapitated, causing the execution to be cancelled and the prisoner pardoned. I have never heard the term vache à Dieu though.

  7. Elias Brinks Says:

    Here are two more contributions! In my wife’s native Alsatian language (don’t dare calling it a dialect 😉 it is called a Herrgottskäferle, or the Lord God’s little beetle. In my native Dutch, it is a Lieveheersbeestje, or the Dear Lord’s little animal.

  8. In Finnish it’s leppäkerttu. Today leppä means “alder” (a tree), but apparently an older meaning is “blood” (or “red”), so it would have referred to the colour of the bug. The other part of the name, “Kerttu”, is a female given name, a Finnish version of Gertrud or Gertrude.

  9. Phillip Helbig Says:

    ” I’d be very interested to hear what a Ladybird is in other languages”

    American English is “ladybug”, probably because it is closer to a bug (it is an insect, but not a true bug) than to a bird.

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