Lexicon Valley

The Erotic Rabbits of Easter

bunnies in love.
Innocent bunnies caught in not so innocent activities.

sam_eder/Thinkstock

This post originally appeared on Strong Language, a sweary blog about swearing

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Easter: It’s a fuckable feast. For its Christian observers, of course, Easter marks the salvific resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. A cornerstone of the faith, the holiday teems with symbols of new life and fertility. Celebrants observe it during the flowering of springtime. Related to the word east, Easter etymologically evokes the rebirth of “dawn.” Eggs hatch baby chicks. And rabbits … well, they fuck like rabbits.

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Easter is an ancient, complex, and venerable occasion, no doubt, but this is Strong Language. Here, we like to hunt for the sweary Easter eggs scattered throughout the lawn of language. I’ve spotted one in the holiday’s cute and cuddly icon: the bunny. I’m not referencing the Playboy Bunnies. The Oxford English Dictionary cites “bunny girls” in Playboy magazine by 1960. The brand’s founder, Hugh Hefner, attributes the origin of his leporine logo to the rodent’s randy reputation, though he may have also been influenced by Bunny’s Tavern, which he apparently frequented during his school days.

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Nor am I referencing fucking like rabbits. The OED attests an example of this characterization of prolific propagation, like rabbits, as early as 1897. For the stronger construction, Jesse Sheidlower’s The F-Word finds “fuck like a mink” in H.N. Cary’s Sexual Vocabulary as early as 1916. The mink was king of the copulation jungle at least until 1978, when Sheidlower cites “fuck like a bunny” in L. Kramer’s Faggots. I’m not even talking about the Rabbit, the fifth “cast member’” of an early episode of Sex and the City, which popularized this brand-name vibrator. The Rabbit’s clitoral stimulator resembles rabbit ears.

No, I’m talking about the coney (or cony), once a common name for the “rabbit”—until the prudes replaced all our lexical Peeps with carrots.The origins of the words rabbitbunny, and coney are fascinating in their own right. Incredibly, Celtic and Germanic languages have no native term for this creature. For the rabbit was not native to northern Europe, unlike the hare, a species whose biological differences are lost on many of us today, though not on the lexicon of our Indo-European ancestors.

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While the etymologies of rabbit and bunny have been quite disputed, philologists chase coney back to a Latin warren. I’ll spare you the nuances, but coney derives from the Old French conil, in turn from Latin’s cunīculus. Historians, including the ancients themselves, trace cunīculus, word and rodent, back to Spain. (The actual word is probably of Iberian origin.)

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The OED finds the earliest record of coney in the early 13th century, when the word largely referred to the rabbit’s skin, fur, or use as food. Eventually displacing coney, the word rabbit appears by the late 14th century; coneys came to refer to rabbits more than a year old. By the early 1500s, coney was also used as a term of endearment for women, a phenomenon we see with a variety of animals, including bunnykitty, and, as Nancy Friedman recently explored, pussy.

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This is where things get interesting. Historically, coney was pronounced more like /kʌni/, rhyming with honey or money. Already a pet name for women, coney sounded like something else connected to women: cunt. By the late 1500s, these associations inspired cunny, a slang term for “vagina,” crudely extended to “sex” and “women” more generally.

This punny bunny puts a whole new spin on some derived expressions. A coney pie no longer sounds like something you eat with a knife and fork. A coney-catcher sounds like someone who’s got a lot of game, so to speak; as early as the 1590s, coney was cant for “dupe,” coney-catcher “swindler.” New York’s Coney Island, according to some accounts, was known for the rabbits once found there, as well the hot dogs, or coneys, which ultimately take their name from this American landmark. (The OED attests Coney Island for “hot dog” by 1895, though various Michigan restaurants lay claim to first serving up the coney dog as we now know it.)

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Illustrating coney’s historical sound and sense, the OED first cites Christopher Marlowe’s Ovid’s Elegies for this cunt-y cunny: “The whore stands to be bought for each mans mony,/ And seekes vild wealth by selling of her Cony.” His contemporary, Shakespeare, played with coney, too. In As You Like It, Rosalind answers Orlando that she is as native “as the coney that you see dwell where she is kindled” (3.2.329-30).

But the 1825 edition of Bowdler’s The Family Shakespeare substituted “rabbit” for Shakespeare’s “coney.” Near the beginning of the Victorian era, many did not approve of this suggestive word, so much so that they might have changed the word’s very pronunciation. See, coney appears in the Bible, and you can’t quite bowdlerize that now, can you?  While found earlier in Wycliffe’s Bible, the King James Version uses coney (Lev. 11:5Deut. 14:7Ps. 104:18Prov. 30:26) as a translation for the Hebrew šāpān, the rock hyrax, frequently mistaken for a rodent.

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Pupils, parents, and preachers often read the Bible aloud, so God forbid any cunt-y language passed their prayerful lips. For this pronunciation pitfall, the OED points us to Benjamin H. Smart, who notes of coney in his 1836 New Critical Pronouncing Dictionary of the English Language: “It is familiarly pronounced [like cunny], the former or regular pronunciation [with a long o] is that proper for solemn reading.” I suspect this ruling also helped the spelling coney prevail over cony.

But Mr. Smart may have not proved so cunning after all: Now you know how to spice up your next Easter Vigil by delivering a not-so-solemn reading from the Old Testament. As mentioned before, rabbit has been outbreeding coney in English even before the 19th century, so we can’t say for sure that the Victorians fully engineered the change in coney’s pronunciation or propelled its decline in usage. But one thing is for sure: All this coney business really sends Easter down the, um, rabbit hole.