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).

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14 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.

  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. In Polish (west Slavic language) there are two words for ladybird: biedronka and boza krowka. The second one translates as ‘little cow of God’. There is a phrase I remember from my childchood: oh, little cow of God, flay to heaven, bring me a piece of bread (Boza krowko, lec do nieba, przynies mi kawalek chleba). Some ethnographers argue that ladybirds are related to pre-christian solar cult (https://teatrnn.pl/leksykon/artykuly/etnografia-lubelszczyzny-ludowe-wierzenia-o-sloncu/). Little cows of God are respected in the traditional culture of western Slavs as they are able to take our wishes to Heavens.

  10. […] an Irish native or have traveled to this land, you’ve probably heard these beetles called God’s little cow. The name likely stems partly from their Christian origins and also from their spotted backs. The […]

  11. In Hebrew it is “the cow of our master Moses” (parat moshe rabeinu). I’ve read that this is taken from the various European names, which reference Mary, and that the Jewish community preferred to name it instead after their most important religious figure.

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