When 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 timers 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 president, 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.