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Word of the day: lieveheersbeestje (ladybird)

In the intermediate group Serbian student Nikola asked what the origin is of the name ‘Lieveheersbeestje’. And the American student Nadia cried out: ‘What a long name for such a small insect…’ 

Literally LIEVEHEERSBEESTJE means ‘little animal of the Dear Lord’. A very distinguished name indeed. It is the only animal I know whose name refers directly to a divine being.

In several other languages the beetle’s name is also associated with God. The medieval English, the Russians, the Irish, the Germans, the Spanish all called the little red bug at one time or another: ‘God’s cow’. Why a cow? The insect is small, does not produce milk, and has nothing in common with the giant grass-eating mammal. Language works in mysterious ways.

The tiny aphid-sucker also goes by other names. In English the bug is now known as ‘ladybird’. The Lady in this name is a divine reference, too. However, this time the name refers to the Virgin Mary. In German the bug is still known as ‘Marienkäfer’. In Dutch it used to be: ‘onzelievevrouwebeestje’ (literally: little animal of Our Dear Lady). Could it be that our reformation in the 16th century was the cause of the change from the Roman Catholic ‘Dear Lady’ to ‘Dear Lord’?

Why oh why all these divine references? The question is bugging me. If you try to look it up in the usual internetsites (eg. Etymologiebank or het Meertensinstituut), you don’t get much of an answer. Wikipedia tells you all about the biology of the beetle, the many colours it can have, why birds don’t like to eat the insect (because of ‘hemolymfe’, a poisonous nasty tasting liquid), why they are necessary for ecological harmony (it has plant lice or aphids on its menu), etc.

Long before Europe was christened, the bug was devoted to Holy Mary’s precursor the German goddess Freyja. The beetle’s name was ‘Freyjafugle’ which means bird of Freyja. This goddess may be forgotten but she still lives on in Friday, ‘vrijdag’ and is associated with beauty, love, fertility and death.

All these names….it’s all superstition probably. We just love LIEVEHEERSBEESTJES because they look cute. They are very common insects in our gardens. They don’t harm us or cause a threat like bees or wasps. Maybe that’s why people think of them as heralds of prosperity and good fortune.

Very often I heard someone say: ‘Look here, on my arm, a LIEVEHEERSBEESTJE, how cute.’ I’ve never seen anyone try to hurt the little red beetle with its dear little dots the way we treat flies or mosquitos.

Speaking of insects, this weekend I reread the novel ‘Erik of het klein insectenboek’ (1940) by Dutch writer Godfried Bomans (Den Haag 1913 – Bloemendaal 1971). It was translated as ‘Eric in the Land of the Insects’ (Boston, 1994). In 2004 the book was made into a popular film, which I haven’t yet seen.

Let’s get back to the book. Students of Dutch! Listen! You can get this book for free at your nearest library because it is promoted by the national campaign ‘Nederland leest’ (‘The Netherlands is reading’). This successful campaign which is now in its eighth year, was inspired by the American campaign ‘One Book, One City’ (launched in Chicago in 2001).

‘Erik’ was one of my favourite books when I was a child, some fifty years ago. I have never reread it, so I was a little anxious. Would it disappoint me? Seventy years after its creation, would the book prove to be past its best-before-date? I felt a bit wary because there were some nasty reviews in the newspapers in the last weeks. All of them complained that the book is not funny anymore and what is even worse, that it was boring.

Fortunately, I was pleasantly surprised. Together with little nine year old Erik I went back in time and travelled through the meadow in the painting ‘Wollewei’ which was hanging on the wall of his bedroom. Like fifty years ago I encountered the lovely butterfly, the devious spider, the aristocratic bees, the stupid worms and the industrious ants, and was again reminded what a modest role we humans play in nature.

The only insect that I missed in this modern version of Alice was…. het LIEVEHEERSBEESTJE. And on reflection this is very strange. Bomans was raised in a catholic family and a brother and sister had joined monastic life. The ladybird could have inspired Bomans to write a special chapter with reflections about religion and faith.

Anyway, as I said Bomans’ novel still worked for me. I was carried away by the story. Why were the critics so bitter? Tomorrow I’ll try to give the answer. And tell you more about the Dutch Dickens.