Every Wednesday, I explore the linguistic origins of one word in different languages I speak.
There were rabbits on my grandparents’ farm. They lived in hutches in a side room of the chicken coop. I remember they pooped copiously, little brown pebbles that never seemed to stay in their living spaces but always ended up on the floor and embedded in the soles of my shoes. I helped feed them sometimes but I didn’t care for them much. They always felt really hot and their eyes were shifty.
After pondering why I have so many rabbit mantras in my life, I didn’t come to any conclusions, but I sure did think a lot about rabbits. I mentioned that we ate them sometimes (as we did every animal on the farm), but I don’t have any particular memories of favorite dishes or preparations. I do remember that they screamed like crazy when you grabbed them, even if it was just to put them in another cage to give them clean hay. This made me like them even less as one thing I really don’t care for is small things that make loud noises (see: children, esp. babies).
What did occur to me is that rabbits are totally Word Mysteries, so let’s get hoppin’.
EN → rabbit — a burrowing, gregarious, plant-eating mammal with long ears, long hind legs, and a short tail. ORIGIN late 14th cent from Walloon (French/Beligian dialect) robète , diminutive of Flemish or Middle Dutch robbe (rabbit).
ES → conejo — Mamífero del orden de los Lagomorfos, de unos cuatro decímetros de largo, comprendida la cola. Tiene pelo espeso de color ordinariamente gris, orejas tan largas como la cabeza, patas posteriores más largas que las anteriores, aquellas con cuatro dedos y estas con cinco. [Mammal of the order Lagomorpha, about 400cm long, including the tail. Typically has bushy gray fur and ears as long as its head. The fore legs are shorter than the hind legs. The former have five toes, the latter, four.] ORIGIN Latin cunicŭlus (rabbit).
FR → lapin — Petit mammifère herbivore très prolifique, caractérisé par de longues oreilles et une petite queue touffue. [Small herbivore which breeds very quickly, characterized by long ears and a short bushy tail.] ORIGIN Uncertain, possibly a combination of laper (eat avidly) and levraut (hare).
English wins because I’d never heard of Walloon before and I like that a language spoken in a tiny geographical area won over the more commonly used French terms. Having no actual knowledge of this, I’d guess that the Walloonish people were avid trappers and sellers of rabbits, so their word won by virtue of being used most often.
Rabbits do run hot. According to the Internets, their normal body temp is 101-103F (38.3-39.4C). This reminds me that in Spain, parents take their kids’ temperature by putting a thermometer in their arm pits which I found really off-putting for some reason.