I always assumed ladybugs (or ladybirds, for the Brits among us) were called so because their dot-spattered red wing covers made them prettier – and so more conventionally ladylike – than other beetles. Boy, was I wrong.
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On the way to explaining why the Hebrew term for ladybug is “parat Moshe Rabbeinu” – the cow of Moshe Rabbeinu, meaning “Moses’ cow” – Israeli linguist Reuven Merkin notes that quirky, affectionate and religion-linked names for this insect are the norm in a variety of languages.
I’m not quite clear on how exactly bovines come into the picture, but ladybugs are known as “God’s little cow” in Russian, Ukrainian, Polish and Bulgarian, according to Merkin, in a word history put out by the Academy of the Hebrew Language. In Spain, the beetle is not God’s cow, but that of Saint Anton. And that “lady” in “ladybug”? Turns out it’s not just any lady; it’s Our Lady, as in Mary, mother of Jesus.
One of the most oft-cited reasons I found for associating God or religious figures with the ladybug is the colorful arthropod’s usefulness in maintaining crops, since the natural pesticide eats aphids and other insects that can destroy the farmers’ yields. Others say the ladybug’s ability to steer clear of predators – thanks to its warning coloration, its bitter taste and the yellowish fluid it can discharge to repulse predators in times of danger – might have been seen as a sign that it had God’s protection.
The Christian European names for the beetle turned into the Yiddish equivalent of “Moses’ cow,” and the Hebrew version was taken directly from the Yiddish, Merkin writes. But while I would have thought the replacement was merely a way of excising the Christian influence on the name and importing a Jewish one, Merkin speculates that Moses was chosen because both the Jewish leader and the spotted beetle are considered humble creatures who do no harm.
With all the religious, biological and linguistic issues that lie behind the ladybug’s name, it’s almost a shame that despite its colorful Moses-related epithet (and its additional Hebrew name of “moshit hasheva,” which makes mention of the seven [“sheva”] dots on a certain variety of ladybug), Israelis often refer to a ladybug simply as a “hipushit” (khee-poo-SHEET), which means nothing more than “beetle.”