MUNDANE MYSTERIES: Why Do We Call Rabbits “Bunnies”

This weekend, kids everywhere will be hoping for a visit from The Easter Bunny, a friendly rabbit who leaves delightful gifts for kids to enjoy on Easter morning. But why is it not called “The Easter RABBIT”? I mean, as far as animal name abbreviations go, “doggy” for dog makes sense. As does “kitty” for cat…y’know, since “kitty” comes from kitten. But why does bunny mean rabbit?

Well, beginning in the 1300s, the common word used to refer to the adult members of the Oryctolagus cuniculus species was coney (pronounced “cunny”). At the end of the 14th century, a coney’s offspring began being referred to as “rabbits,” which was a word that most likely came into our English language by way of the French form “rabotte”.

But by the 1800s, coney had fallen out of favor once the British had begun using the word in a vulgar way. So, rabbit became the word people would use to refer to the long-eared mammal. But rabbit doesn’t have anything to do with the word “bunny”, though…at least not etymologically. So, how did they become intertwined?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “bunny” is a form of the word “bun” & with the added suffix of the letter “y”. But bun, in this sense, wasn’t a word for baked goods or rabbits. It was actually the 16th  century nickname for a squirrel, before later becoming a term of endearment for a loved one.

Where exactly bun, in the rabbit sense, came from is unclear. But wherever it came from, the word “bunny” first showed up in print in 1609 as an affectionate term for women & children, while the first citation of its use as a pet name for a rabbit came in 1699 in A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew. But it’s possible folks were calling rabbits “buns” & “bunnies” long before those terms found their way in print.

But maybe you’re wondering, “Is there actually a difference between bunnies & rabbits?” Well, actually…no, not really. Both terms refer to the same animal in the Leporidae family, and both are usually used interchangeably. Though, bunny might more often be used to refer to baby rabbits (which, technically, should be referred to as “kits” or “kittens”).

There are differences between rabbits and hares, though—they belong to different genera, and hares tend to be bigger than rabbits & more solitary. So, bunny shouldn’t be used to describe a hare. But, depending on how adorable it may be, feel free to call that bouncing four-legged cutie whatever you like.

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