How Did ‘Bunny’ Become a Word for ‘Rabbit’?

Follow us down the etymological rabbit hole.

Everybunny wants to know why we call rabbits “bunnies.”
Everybunny wants to know why we call rabbits “bunnies.” / Martin Ruegner/Stone/Getty Images (bunnies), Jon Mayer/Mental Floss (thought bubble)

When it comes to abbreviations for animal names, doggy for dog makes sense, as does kitty for cat, when you think about it: Kitty comes from the word kitten. But where does bunny for rabbit come from?

A Rabbit by Any Other Name

Starting in the 14th century, the common word used for adult members of the species Oryctolagus cuniculus was coney (pronounced “cunny,” like honey and money). At the end of that century, their young began to be called “rabbits,” a word that may have come into English via the French word rabotte.

In the 1800s, coney fell out of favor “after British slang picked up coney as a punning synonym for cunny ‘cunt,’” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, and rabbit took over as the word people used to refer to the long-eared mammal. Rabbit, however, has nothing to do with bunny—at least not etymologically.

Putting the Bun in Bunny

Bunny is a combination of the word bun and the suffix -y, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Bun in this sense had nothing to do with cakes or with rabbits—in fact, in the 16th century, it was a nickname for a squirrel, and later a term of endearment for a loved one.

Where bun in the rabbit sense came from is unclear; according to the OED, its connection to the Scottish word bun, meaning “the tail of a hare,” isn’t likely. The Online Etymology Dictionary says bun could have come from the French bon (which translates to “good”) or from a Scandinavian word.

Wherever the bun came from, bunny first showed up as an affectionate term for women and children in 1609, and the first citation of its use as a pet name for a rabbit came in 1699’s A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew. But it’s always possible that people were calling rabbits “buns” and “bunnies” long before the terms wound up in print—they’re also both cited in a 19th-century collection of archaic terms dating back to the 1300s.

Bunny vs. Rabbit

Perhaps you’re wondering: Is there a difference between bunnies and rabbits? The answer is, not really—both terms refer to the same animal in the Leporidae family, and people tend to use them interchangeably, though bunny might more often be used for baby rabbits (which are technically called “kits” or “kittens”).

There are differences between rabbits and hares, though—they belong to different genera, and hares tend to be bigger than rabbits and more solitary. You can find out more about the differences between the two animals here.

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A version of this story ran in 2014; it has been updated for 2024.