While checking that I knew what I was talking about when writing about the words venomous and poisonous, I came across an interesting term: true bug.
I knew of course that bug can be used to describe any insect, arachnid, or other bothersome little creature. The word seems to come from the Middle English bugge (something frightening, scarecrow) which is also the origin for words like bugbear and bugaboo, and probably bogeyman. Bug, as in a problem with a machine, may have been coined by Thomas Edison, probably referring to the idea of a bug getting inside the workings of a machine.
Knowing all this though, I’d never heard of true bugs. They’re a specific order of insects also known by the scientific name Hemiptera. They include cicadas, aphids, and bed bugs, and share the common feature of an arrangement of sucking mouthparts. Lovely.
A lot of insects with bug in their name don’t belong to this quite specific order. Ladybugs, for example, which are actually a type of beetle. Of course if you’re not American, you’re probably not too surprised that they’re not true bugs, as you call them ladybirds. Where did these cute little insects get their unusual name? It’s actually a reference to the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus Christ, who was often depicted in religious paintings as wearing the same shade of red as that on the ladybird’s wings. The most common type of the insect in Europe has seven black spots, and these were thought to represent Mary’s Seven Joys (The Annunciation, The Nativity of Jesus, The Adoration of the Magi, The Resurrection of Christ, The Ascension of Christ into Heaven, The Pentecost, and The Coronation of the Virgin in Heaven – quite a gap there between Jesus’s birth and resurrection: I hope she still had some minor joys in that period), and her Seven Sorrows (The Prophecy of Simeon, The Flight into Egypt, The Loss of the Child Jesus in the Temple of Jerusalem, The Meeting of Mary and Jesus on the Via Dolorosa, The Crucifixion of Jesus, The Piercing of Jesus’ side, The Burial of Jesus).
That’s a lot to carry on those little wings! I’m assuming the -bird part is simply because they’re more attractive than insects, and were deemed more appropriate for the mother of God. Ladybug is probably the result of pioneers of American English wanting to be more literally logical about their use of English. Though the most famous Lady Bird was American: Lady Bird Johnson, former First Lady, as wife of President Lyndon B. Johnson. Her birthname was Claudia, but her nursemaid Alice Tittle declared her to be “as purdy as a lady bird,” and the name stuck. Note of course that Johnson separated the Lady and Bird, as it’s quite likely that Tittle was referring to a female bird, given of course that ladybug would be the term she’d most likely use to refer to the insect. And if you had a childhood nickname based on an insect, no matter how cute, you probably wouldn’t want to keep that on as your adult first name, would you? Even if it’s not actually a true bug, but a beetle.