The land of rabbits

Photo of a rabbit

When adding more animals to the Celtic Connections section on Omniglot the other day, I started wondering about the origins of the Celtic words for rabbit – connín (Irish), coinean (Scottish Gaelic), conning (Manx), cwningen (Welsh), conyn (Cornwell), c’honikl (Breton). They appear to be related to each other, and also to the English word coney, which was used for rabbit until the 18th century, while rabbit was used for the young of the coney from about the 14th century.

Rabbit apparently comes from the Walloon robète, which is a diminutive of the Flemish or Middle Dutch robbe.

Coney comes from the Anglo-Norman conis, the plural of conil “long-eared rabbit” (Lepus cunicula) from the Latin cuniculus, which means burrow and comes from the Greek κύνικλος (kýniklos), which is thought to come from an Iberian word for burrow. Related words in other languages include kanin (Danish), konijn (Dutch), bunny (English), Kaninchen (German), coniglio (Italian).

There’s a popular theory that the Roman name for Spain, Hispania, which became España and Spain, comes from the Phoenician name for Iberia i-shepan-im, the land or coast of rabbits. When the Phoenicians first visited Iberia in around 500 BC they saw lots of rabbits there which they named after a similar animal, the hyrax of North Africa.

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This entry was posted in English, Etymology, Greek, Language, Latin, Words and phrases.

27 Responses to The land of rabbits

  1. Christopher Miller says:

    In Occitan, conilh (coniu in Provençal, coniéu in “Mistralian” orthography); conill in Catalan.

    Someone at this address:

    http://langcafe2.myfreeforum.org/archive/names-for-animals-in-your-language__o_t__t_399.html

    gives kinnen in Scots and knyn in Frisian. À propos of Dutch konijn, there’s a favourite children’s character in the Netherlands called Nijntje (I think they translate the name simply as Bunny in English adaptations.) Sort of a long-eared equivalent of the Japanese Hello Kitty. As for bunny, I’ve always understood it to be a taboo avoidance replacement for coney (due to the latter’s similarity to the core term for female genitals), possibly part of the explanation for the prevalence of ‘rabbit’ over the past couple of centuries.

    In geography, Coney Island is a well known resort area near New York City. And as far as I’m concerned, Charles de Gaulle airport near Paris, with the swarms of rabbits living between the runways, ought to be renamed Roissy-les-lapins!

  2. Dennis King says:

    This is from an older site of mine, Stair an Fhocail:

    Níl stair fhada sa Ghaeilge ag an bhfocal seo, agus is dócha go bhfuil sinsearacht mheasctha aige, leath-Ghaelach agus leath-Ghallda. Ar láimh amháin, is féidir “cú” a dhíspeagadh mar “coinín” (= cú beag; cf. “con” sna focail “Conán”, “na gcon”, etc.), agus ar an láimh eile, bhíodh na focail “cunin”, “konyne”, “coning” agus “coni” in úsáid sa Mheán-Bhéarla (agus “coney” nó “cony” i mBéarla an lae inniu, cé nach gnáthfhocal anois é, ó ghlac “rabbit” a áit).

    Maidir leis na focail Mheán-Bhéarla, is ón tSean-Fhraincis “conin, connin, conil” a tháinig siad, ón bhfocal Laidine “cuniculus” (= coinín). Is féidir gur tháinig an focal seo ó fhocal Laidine eile, “cunnus”, a chiallaíonn “pit” (“truaill” nó “clúdach” i dtosach), ó *kut-no-, ón bhfréamh Ind-Eorpaise *(s)keu- (clúdaigh, cuir i bhfolach).

  3. Seumas says:

    In Lewis Gaelic, we say ‘rabaid’ but everyone would understand ‘coinean’…

  4. TJ says:

    Amazingly, I was talking about Spain and rabbits with my friend yesterday :)

    But I thought that Phoenician name would be closer somehow to other semitic names for the Rabbit, mainly “Arnab” in Hebrew and Arabic.

  5. bronz says:

    In Hebrew it is also common to use “shafan” for rabbit. Not as popularly used as “arnab” but still much used.

  6. Tommy says:

    there is also conejo (Spanish) and conelho (Portuguese)

    According to Wikipedia, Coney Island near Brooklyn was a place of rabbit hunting and was taken from the Dutch Konijnen Eiland. Now its a resort and amusement park area.

  7. Chris Miller says:

    À propos of rabbits, I wonder what ” Welsh rabbit” is actually called in Welsh?

  8. renato says:

    Very interesting ethmology of rabbit. In Portuguese, cunicultura (cuni-cultura) is the name for the creation of rabbits; cunicultor is the farmar who works with rabbits.
    2- Tommy, a small correction in what you wrote. In Portuguse, the name for rabbit is coelho and not conelho.

  9. Christopher Miller says:

    Ah, coelho! As soon as I saw that I thought of the fairly common Portuguese family name Coelho. Is there a connection?

  10. Adam says:

    Welsh Rarebit is simple – Caws ar Dost Cymreig :P

  11. Daydreamer says:

    Funny that Standard German “Kaninchen” has “Kanickel” as a regional variant, which resembles the Breton “c’honikl”.

  12. Yenlit says:

    “c’honikl” is the mutated form of konikl – isn’t it?

  13. Petréa Mitchell says:

    So what about hase as in hasenpfeffer?

  14. Petréa Mitchell says:

    Where does that come from, I mean? (Must stop clicking too soon.)

  15. Christopher Miller says:

    PS, that last link is NOT SPAM… It takes you to an online etymology page for ‘hare’.

  16. Yenlit says:

    A young hare is called a leveret (Welsh: leferen)

  17. renato says:

    Christofer, about Coelho as family name (surname), one theory says that all Jweish people, during Middle Ages, who arrieved at Iberic Peninsula, were obey to change their family names, for things thight to nature as trees and animals or things, to scape from persecution. They were called New Christians,so Coelho, Machado, Figueira (or Figueiredo which is my family name) and so on probably came from this passage.

  18. Chris Miller says:

    In French, hare is (un) lièvre (as in the fable “Le lièvre et la tortue”); in Occitan, (una) lèbre (cf. the song (“Ai vist lo lop, lo rainal, la lèbre dançar”). In Catalan, Occitan’s twin sister language, it’s llebre. All these words, and their Welsh and English cognates, come from a Latin oblique case stem lepor- that corresponds to the nominative lepus.

    Going back to the French title of The Tortoise and the Hare, I find it interesting that English and French each arrange the names a different way, but in a way that the title ends up being made up of three iambic feet in each language: da DA da DA da DA.

  19. Yenlit says:

    I can’t really remember which order the title is in Welsh – “Yr Ysgyfarnog a’r Crwban” the Hare and the Tortoise or vise versa?

  20. George says:

    In Greek we have Κονικλοτροφεία = the farming of rabbits. Very interesting article Simon!

  21. George says:

    Sorry, spelling error.

    Κονικλοτροφία = the farming of rabbits
    Κονικλοτροφεία = the farms for the rabbits

    although both words are pronounced in the same way.

  22. Macsen says:

    As we’re discussing hares – ysgyfarnog (or ‘sgwarnog’ in colloquial Welsh) there’s a song by Bob Delyn a’r Ebillion. The singer, Twm Morys is the son of the writer Jan Morris. The song is ‘Tren bach y sgwarnogod’ (the little train of the hares). It’s a fun song which says that hares don’t have to pay to go on the train. Morys has a thing about hares!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_A-grdYF_HE

    As the comment with the video says, it’s a pity the video is so dark.

  23. cara says:

    possibly related to the French word for horn of an animal? la corne.

  24. Simon says:

    cara – la corne comes from the Latin cornu and is related to the English words horn and cornet.

  25. eimear says:

    Rabbits, of course, only came to Ireland with the Normans. Hares were native and giorria apparently derives from gearr-fhia which appears to mean “small (game animal)” but could facetiously be translated literally as “short-deer”.