From ladybugs to the Johnson administration to a creepy Mother Goose rhyme.
Saoirse Ronan’s character never explains why she begins calling herself “Lady Bird” in the Oscar-nominated film of the same name. Born Christine McPherson, Lady Bird decides to embrace the new moniker to the chagrin of her mother and community. In the beginning, when a teacher at the Catholic high school she attends asks Lady Bird if that’s her given name, she retorts, “It was given by myself to myself.”
Though Lady Bird never explains what made her choose the unique name, its history dates back centuries. In 1674, the Oxford English Dictionary first noted the use of “ladybird” as a term for the tiny beetles that Americans generally call ladybugs. Previously, “ladybird” and its variants referred to women — in Romeo and Juliet (1597), Shakespeare writes, “What Lamb, what Ladie bird / … Wher’s this girle?” A ladybug was then called a “cow-lady” or “ladycow.”
But by the end of the 17th century, “ladybird” was used as a term for the family of colorful beetles spread widely throughout Britain and parts of the U.S. Most famously, the wife of President Lyndon B. Johnson chose the name Lady Bird when a nurse told her parents, “she’s as purty as a lady bird” after her birth in the rural community of Karnack, Texas, in 1912.
But Lady Bird director Greta Gerwig notes that Lady Bird Johnson was not the inspiration for the name. “I just did press in Texas, and it’s so confusing there. They were like, why? Why did you call it ‘Lady Bird’?” Gerwig told NPR’s Terry Gross in an interview in November. The name seemingly came out of nowhere: “I had been writing all these other scenes, and I couldn’t find exactly how it all fit together. I felt like I was — I kept hitting a wall, and then I put everything aside, and I wrote at the top of the page, ‘Why won’t you call me Lady Bird? You promised that you would.’ … And I have no idea where it came from.”
In fact, Gerwig later realized that she had the name in her head because she’d once read the mid-18th century Mother Goose nursery rhyme, “Ladybird ladybird.” Though the exact rhyme varies, Gerwig cites the version that goes like this:
Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home,
Your house is on fire,
Your children shall burn!
The rhyme also appears to have been the inspiration for the 1994 drama film Ladybird, Ladybird.
Gerwig, when describing her sudden fascination with the name Lady Bird, told NPR, “This is the creepy, mysterious part of writing.”