Run, Rabbit Run, a popular Second World War song, went: “Run Rabbit, Run Rabbit,/Run, run, run./Don’t give the farmer his fun, fun, fun./He’ll get by without his rabbit pie/So run rabbit, run rabbit,/Run, run, run.”
Rabbits abound in folklore and children’s literature. Remember the White Rabbit that led Alice into Wonderland? As well, Peter Rabbit and siblings led old Farmer MacGregor on a merry chase. Don’t forget Bugs Bunny, that “wascally wabbit” of cartoon fame. The Uncle Remus stories by Joel Chandler Harris feature Brer Rabbit, who is as cunning as Peter and Bugs.
In nursery rhyme, Baby Bunting’s daddy went “a-hunting, to fetch a little rabbit skin to wrap his Baby Bunting in.”
A 1960 adult book by John Updike is Rabbit Run.
Aesop never mentions rabbits, but eight fables feature hares, often confused with rabbits. They are different species, although both belong to the Lagomorpha order, and together are known as Leporidae.
Naturally, rabbits figure in superstition. So, if a rabbit crosses your path, you avoid misfortune if you make an X in the ground, take three backward steps, and spit on the ground. Conversely, a rabbit passing behind you is good luck.
A rabbit’s foot worn around a baby’s neck prevents sickness. And saying rabbit aloud on the first day of a month earns you a present.
The left hind foot of a rabbit killed in a cemetery is lucky. In fact, any rabbit’s foot is a good talisman. This ancient belief dates to at least 500 BC, the reasoning being the rabbit’s legendary fertility and the fact that a rabbit’s foot is phallic in shape. Not only were large human families desirable back then, but the rabbit’s fertility, a symbol of abundance, was thought to bring bountiful crops. Originally, an entire pelt was required to bring luck, but over the years the foot alone was deemed sufficient.
Inevitably, the word rabbit entered popular speech. If someone pulls a rabbit out of a hat, his cleverness unexpectedly results in something good. Sometimes, this expression also implies deception.
To rabbit means “to talk.” This is from 1940s rhyming slang when “rabbit and pork” equalled “talk.”
Remember “rabbit ears?” Those V-shaped television antennae of the 1950s?
Rabbit food, originating mid-20th century, is a put-down for salads and green vegetables.
Since rabbits are sometimes viewed as symbols of timidity, rabbit is used scornfully for a poor sports performer or for someone who’s shy.
Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang lists 25 slang terms using the word rabbit. Some are obscene.
One interesting entry is rabbit as a pet name for a new-born baby. This late 18th century usage refers to Mary Tofts (c.1701-1763) who purportedly gave birth to a litter of rabbits in 1726.
In U.S. Black slang from the 1970s, a rabbit is a white person. In New Zealand, to rabbit is “to scrounge” (1950s). A rabbit punch is a chopping blow to the back of the head.
Rabbit (Middle English) is from the late 14th century, probably originating in the Walloon Robett (rabbit; hare).