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Mind your language

Why is a ladybird called a ‘bishy barnabee’?

16 November 2019

9:00 AM

16 November 2019

9:00 AM

People in different regions like to think their dialects incomprehensible to outsiders, yet they can usually come up with quite a short list of words that differ from the norm. In Norfolk a favourite is bishy barnabee for ‘ladybird’. Ladybird, as I have mentioned before, refers to Our Lady, the Virgin Mary. But there have been attempts recently to derive bishy barnabee from Bishop Bonner (1500-69). Professor Peter Trudgill, who, as a sociolinguist born in Norwich, should have known better, wrote in an OED blog that bishybarnybee ‘comes from Bishop Bonner’s bee. Bishop Edmund “Bloody” Bonner, who had been vicar in the Norfolk town of East Dereham, became bishop of London in 1539 and was known as a ferocious persecutor of Protestant martyrs during the reign of Queen Mary.’

Why should that qualify him to name ladybirds? The first evidence of the name is from 1789, as bush a benny tree. Wikipedia erroneously lists among regional names Bishop-that-burneth, and someone has mischievously added a link to Edmund Bonner.


In Thomas Tusser’s Five Hundred Pointes of Good Husbandrie (1580) there is a mention of the Bishop-that-burneth as an unwelcome guest for a dairymaid. There’s no hint it meant a ladybird. The English Dialect Society edition of Tusser (1878) quotes William Tyndale’s Obedyence of a Chrystene Man (1528). ‘If the podech [pottage] be burned,’ he wrote, ‘we say “the byshope has put his fote in the potte”,’ since ‘the byshopes burn who they lust’. Perhaps it was on Tyndale’s mind, for in 1536 he was strangled and burnt at the stake in Antwerp. But that was before Bonner was even made bishop.

This has nothing to do with ladybirds. We are left with a Norfolk rhyme about the ‘burnie-bee’ or ladybird quoted in 1814: ‘Bless you, bless you, burnie-bee,/ Tell me where my true love be.’ A similar rhyme with ‘Bishop, Bishop Barnabee’ dates from 1865. Who can say which is the older form? But in 1674 bishop had been given by John Ray as a word (from the south and east) for ‘The little spotted beetle commonly called the Lady-cow or Lady-bird.’ So bishop, burnie-bee, or even the pet-name Barnabee might be meant, but forget poor Bishop Bonner.


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