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In case you don't know, in British English, the little red-with-black-spots insect is not called a "ladybug", as in North America, but a "ladybird".

This seems rather a poor act of classification, all things considered. Does anyone know why the ladybird was given such a name? Was it purely whimsical, or is there any reason why this insect should seem more avian than the rest of its kin?

On a possibly related note, why was President Johnson's wife called Lady Bird Johnson? I guess Lady Bug Johnson might have been insufficiently dignified for the First Lady of the United States...

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I guess it depend on what is strange! In Dutch it is called "Dear Lord Animal". –  Peter Smit Nov 22 '10 at 11:47
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2 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Etymonline says:

ladybug

1690s, from lady + bug. The "lady" is the Virgin Mary (cf. Ger. cognate Marienkäfer). In Britain, now usually ladybird beetle (1704), through aversion to the word bug, which there has overtones of sodomy.

As to Lady Bird Johnson, that nickname was given to her by her nurse, as Wikipedia explains:

Though she was named for her mother's brother Claud, during her infancy, her nurse, Alice Tittle, commented, she was as "purty as a ladybird" [...]. That nickname virtually replaced her actual first name for the rest of her life. Her father and siblings called her Lady, though her husband called her Bird, which is the name she used on her marriage license. During her teenage years, her schoolmates had called her Bird, though mockingly, since she reportedly was not fond of the name.

Responding to your comment, I will add that both of her parents were natives of Alabama and the nurse was an African American. The Corpus of Historical American Language has these stats for ladybird vs. ladybug:

COHA stats

(X axis: year, Y axis: incidences per million words.)

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Interesting... I guess it was a "ladybird" and not a "ladybug" in America too at the time then, and it's only recently that the less whimsical-sounding name has truly taken over. –  thesunneversets Nov 22 '10 at 16:57
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Etymonline tells a fine story, but the theory seems doubtful, given that ladybird is the older attested form (OED has citations for ladybird from 1674, but for ladybug from 1699). –  Gareth Rees Nov 24 '10 at 15:59
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From the standpoint of entomology and not etymology, both "ladybird" and "ladybug" are incorrect. Bugs are one specific order of insects (Hemiptera), and ladybirds/bugs are beetles (Coleoptera). Entomologists prefer "ladybird beetle." –  gmcgath Dec 21 '12 at 13:34
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Why they called it a bird, I can't answer. The etymology though is (from Wikipedia):

The name "ladybird" originated in the Britain where the insects became known as "Our Lady's bird" or the "Lady beetle". Mary (Our Lady) was often depicted wearing a red cloak in early paintings and the spots of the seven spot ladybird (the most common in Europe) were said to symbolise her seven joys and seven sorrows. Common names in other European languages have the same association (the German name Marienkäfer translates to "Marybeetle" or, literally, Mary-chafer). In the United States the name was adapted to "ladybug".

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They can fly, ladybirds, so that may be why... –  Jez Nov 15 '11 at 13:14
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