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Ladyfingers, Ladybirds, and Woolly Bears

LadyfingersWhen my friend Liza (nee) Schlossenberg’s father was 4 years old his mother discovered that she had forgotten to pick up some pastries she needed for a reception she was preparing at home. She gave Liza’s father $1 and told him to go buy a bag of ladyfingers. He returned some time later reporting that the butcher didn’t have any. (Can you imagine what went through his mind on the way to the butcher’s?)

There are some very creative names in English that are not semantically transparent; you have to learn them ‘manually’ in real time. They serve no particular function other than to surprise us and raise a smile now and then when we least expect it.

Over the past five years my hometown of Lewisburg has established a tongue-in-cheek “Woolly Worm Festival”, held in the fall when little creatures begin crawling about. Old Woolly Beartimers claim they can predict the severity of the coming winter on the basis of how thick the woolly coats of the small caterpillars are. They are not even worms but then they aren’t bears, either, yet their actual name remains ’woolly bears’ throughout most of the English-speaking world despite the Lewisburg Festival’s efforts. The English habit of calling a caterpillar “a bear” results in one of the funniest (mis)nomers in the language. But there are literal minds who don’t like surprises and are ill at ease with the humor of the folk names our ancestors invested our language with.

One final example is the name of the ladybird, the brightest of our little beetles with its bow tie and glistening lacquered coat of red bespeckled with black. Our former Ladybirdpresident, Lyndon Baines Johnson, insisted that, in addition to his daughters (Lynda Bird & Lucy Baines), his wife’s initials should be the same as his (LBJ). Toward this end he called her Ladybird, a name she adopted thinking it, I would imagine, the name of a bird, not a beetle. Yes, we have to be told twice, maybe thrice, that this bird is a beetle but that is not such a tremendous mental feat as should deter us from keeping this scintillating little lexical fluke alive in our conversations.

Names like woolly bear, ladyfinger, and ladybird are lexical gracenotes that adorn our speech. They play no critical role in language—unless you prefer life without decoration. I am very suspicious of the prospects of a life without the unexpected, unbesprinkled with glistening gems of speech that catch our ear and sparkle in our imaginations.

4 Responses to “Ladyfingers, Ladybirds, and Woolly Bears”

  1. Brian Johnson Says:

    Dear Dr. Goodward,

    I cannot believe that Mrs. Johnson did not know when Lyndon applied the sobriquet “Ladybird” on her that she was unaware of the children’s verse
    Ladybird ladybird
    Fly away home
    Your house is on fire
    and your children will burn

    To be repeated as the captured ladybird is blown back into the air from the palm of the hand.

  2. rbeard Says:

    Bob, regarding LBJ’s wife: the story I’ve always heard was that her nickname came from a nursemaid who said she was as pretty as a little ladybird, and the name stuck. The matching initials, then, were a coincidence when they married, and the daughters’–and beagles’–names were chosen to perpetuate the pattern. I don’t know what he did about his mistress. s

    Sue Gold, Director of Communications
    Westtown School

  3. Perry Lassiter Says:

    Down here in Louisiana the critter is more often called a “ladyBUG,” though the term “ladybird” is recognized.
    By the way, do you have a discussion of abbreviated words such as “tho” and “thru” anywhere. Their use seems to be more common with email and IM’s.

  4. Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog » Blog Archive » In the Floor for Discussion Says:

    [...] But I’ll bet this is not the case in Dwaine’s idiolect. I would guess that it is simply idiomatic, in a category of oddities like the use by New Yorkers of “standing on line” rather than “in line”. Why do they do that? Probably someone of prominence, an immigré no doubt, used this expression a long time ago and, despite its going against the grain of linguistic intuition, it stuck. If so, then there is no explanation. It is there for the same unreason we call a long, fat pastry a ladyfinger and a fuzzy caterpillar a wooly bear (more on this). [...]

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