Bunny vs. rabbit?

A rabbit is any small mammal of the order Leporidae that does not descend from the genus Lepus (aka hares). A bunny is simply a baby rabbit.

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What is the difference between bunny and rabbit?

Many English speakers grow-up with an awareness of the Easter bunny or the cartoon character Bugs Bunny, but did you know neither character is a “bunny” at all? That’s right— these beloved characters are actually more like rabbits and hares, which are two animals people also confuse. 

The key differences between bunny and rabbit:

  • The word bunny is a noun that describes a newborn rabbit. 
  • Rabbit is a noun for adult rabbits. 

The noun rabbit is also another term for “hare,” although hares are entirely different animal species than a rabbit (don’t worry, we will divulge all the details later on). 

What does bunny mean?

The word bunny (plural “bunnies”) is an informal noun that we use to mean ‘young rabbit,’ ‘a young girl,’ ‘an attractive female,’ or ‘an easy basketball shot’ located near the hoop. When paired with an adjective, the noun bunny also describes a person “of a specific type,” such as “snow bunny” or “Easter bunny.”

Example sentences:

  • Bunnies make for good pets, but some people eat them.” 
  • “You can pick up a pet bunny to feel its soft fur.” 
  • “The state champion made several bunnies around the basket.” 
  • “Hugh Hefner called his waitresses and models ‘bunnies’ or ‘Playboy bunnies.’” 
  • “Some people believe the Easter bunny is an essential worker.” 
  • “We call her a snow bunny because she loves to snowboard.” 

What does rabbit mean?

The word rabbit is a noun or verb that references any small animal of the family Leporidae, especially the European or cottontail rabbits of the Americas. As a noun, English speakers typically use the word “rabbit” to mean ‘a wild or domesticated rabbit animal,’ the ‘rabbit fur,’ or the ‘meat of rabbit’ (kept as food). 

Example sentences:

  • “The children have pet rabbits.” 
  • “All rabbits have powerful back legs, and some can sprint up to 50 miles per hour.” 
  • “Some Parisians eat rabbit on a weekly basis.” 
  • “PETA members protest rabbit farms that use the small mammals for fur apparel.” 

Outside of the term’s literal meaning, we can also use the noun “rabbit” to describe a runner who acts as a pacesetter in the first laps of a track event or an artificial, mechanical decoy sped along the side of a dog tack for pursuit. 

Example sentences:

  • “The athlete kept up with the pace rabbit throughout the tournament.” 
  • “The Greyhounds prepare for upcoming races by chasing mechanical rabbits.” 

Rabbit as a verb?

As for the verb meaning, “to rabbit” means ‘to hunt rabbits’ or ‘to quickly run away.’ However, English speakers (especially British English) also use “rabbit” as an informal noun or verb to mean ‘conversation’ or ‘to talk at length about trivial matters.’ 

Sentence examples: 

  • “The teacher rabbited on and on about the Roman Empire.” 
  • “Movie critics hosted a live rabbit about this year’s best features.” 
  • “My brothers take the dog rabbiting once a year.” 

Writing tip!

When using “rabbit” as a verb, be sure to use “rabbit or “rabbits” for the present tense, “rabbiting” for the present participle, and “rabbeted” for the past participle. 

Phrases of rabbit

The word rabbit appears in several English phrases, making bunny vs. rabbit more difficult for non-native speakers to understand. The three most common phrases of “rabbit” include: 

“Breed like rabbits”

If you didn’t already know, rabbits are known for short gestation periods, meaning they become pregnant quickly, have shorter pregnancies, and give birth to many children at once. Thus, English speakers use the phrase “breed like rabbits” to describe someone or something that produces many children in a short period of time. 

Sentence examples: 

  • “In these artfully artless drawings, sometimes mordant, sometimes terminally cute, ideas breed like rabbits.” –– The New York Times
  • “At unpredictable intervals, groups of stately oaks, usually recognized for their strength and longevity, breed like rabbits.” –– The Wall Street Journal 

“Pull a rabbit out of a hat”

Have you ever watched a magic show? If so, you’ve likely witnessed a magician pull a white rabbit from the bottom of their tophat. At one time, this old-fashioned magic trick was so popular that people began using the phrase “pull a rabbit out of a hat” to describe something as ‘unexpected and ingeniously effective.’ In other words, people use the phrase to mean ‘making the impossible possible.’

Sentence examples: 

  • “‘Unless they pull a rabbit out of a hat in federal court, it’s not going to be on the ballot’…” –– The New York Times
  • “Bill Belichick needs to pull a rabbit out of the hat to keep the Patriots viable.” –– The Boston Herald

“Down the rabbit hole”

The next saying is much easier to learn if you’ve read Lewis Carrol’s book, Alice in Wonderland. “Down the rabbit hole” is a phrase that metaphorically uses “rabbit hole”  to describe a complex and bizarre circumstance that one ‘falls into’ like a hole in the ground. Alternatively, we might use the phrase to describe when the pursuit of answers produces several more questions and further research. 

Sentence examples: 

  • “It was actually seeing Buolamwini’s 2016 TED Talk that led Kantayya down the rabbit hole of how Big Tech can impact civil rights.” –– Fast Company
  • “… there’s always something that catches my eye and sends me down the rabbit hole of Alley history….” –– Harvard Sentinel 

Etymology of rabbit and bunny

Historically speaking, people have used the word rabbit far longer than bunny. According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, the Middle English spelling of “rabbet” stems back to Old French “rabbotte” for ‘young rabbit’ or ‘the young of the species’ (“Rabbit” 1437). 

As for adult rabbits, 14th-century speakers used the term “coney” instead, which originated with plural Ango-Norman conis from Latin conicula. In fact, all domestic rabbits originate from the “Old World” or European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus), whose genus name derives from Greek orukter (‘digging tool’) and lagos (‘hare’). The species name “cuniculus” is Latin for ‘rabbit’ and ‘underground passage.’

The word “bunny” didn’t enter the English language until the 17th century, where it was a term of endearment. While linguists don’t understand why “bunny” became a popular term for loved ones, they know the connection between “bunny” and “baby rabbits” stems from dialectical bun for ‘squirrel’ or ‘rabbit’ (“Bunny” 232). 

How to remember the difference between bunny and rabbit?

As we now know, a “bunny” is a baby rabbit that matures into an adult “rabbit.” To remember the difference between these terms, associate the letter b of “bunny” with “baby.” For example, 

Bunny = B = Baby rabbit 

FAQ: What’s the difference between rabbits and hares?

Rabbits and hares are different species of animals that come from the order of mammals called Lagomorpha— just like humans, gorillas, and lemurs all come from the order Primates. Under the order Lagomorpha, there are two extant animal families: the Ochontonide and the Leporidae

Pikas come from the Ochontonide animal family, while rabbits and hares come from the family Leporidae. But within every animal family is one or several different genera, with each genus containing individual species. All hares derive from the genus Lepus, while the remaining ten genres of the Leporidae consist entirely of rabbits

Since rabbits and hares are closely related, they share several physical traits, such as long ears, powerful hind legs, and a divided upper lip. But when it comes to behavioral traits, the two animal types are easier to differentiate:

  • Hares are larger than rabbits and often feature longer ears and black markings on their fur. 
  • Rabbits enjoy plants with soft stems, while hares prefer fibrous vegetation like twigs or tree bark.
  • Rabbits are social animals that live in organized groups, while hares live fairly independently. 
  • Hares dwell in grassy surface nests while rabbits burrow underground to reset and reproduce.
  • Newborn hares enter the world with fur, hearing, or eyesight, while baby rabbits have no such luck. 
  • Baby hares are called “leverets” while baby rabbits are called “kittens.” 

Beware of rabbit and hare names

As of 2020, there are roughly 32 species of hare and 29 species of rabbit, but many species are misidentified or given incorrect names. For instance, all four Red Rock Hare species were mislabeled under the genus Lepus until biologists realized they were actually rabbits. 

Additionally, all six “jackrabbit” species are hares, which makes learning the difference between hares and rabbits more confusing. Other species with incorrect “rabbit” or “hare” names include:

  • “Bushman hare” = Bushman rabbit or Riverine rabbit (Brachylagus monticularis). 
  • “Hispid hare” = aka “Assam rabbit” or “bristly rabbit” (Caprolagus hispidus). 
  • “Swamp hare” = Swamp rabbit (Sylvilagus aquaticus).
  • “Snowshoe rabbit” = Snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus).

Wild rabbits are not the same as domesticated rabbits

The last note for hares vs. rabbits is that wild rabbits are not the same animal as domesticated rabbits. There are over 100 different breeds of domestic rabbits derived from the European rabbit, which is only found in the wild outside of North America. All other hare and rabbit species are considered to be “wild.” 

Test Yourself!

Test how well you understand the difference between bunny vs. rabbit with the following multiple-choice questions. 

  1. True or false: Rabbits and hare belong to the same order of mammals.
    a. True 
    b. False
  2. The word “bunny” describes a _________ rabbit.
    a. Adult
    b. Domestic
    c. Baby
    d. Cottontail
  3. The word “rabbit” is a __________. 
    a. Noun
    b. Adjective
    c. Verb
    d. A and C
  4. Which of the following animals do not derive from the Leporidae animal family? 
    a. Hares
    b. Rabbits
    c. Pikas
    d. Bunnies
  5. “Bunny” entered the English language during the __________. 
    a. 16th century
    b. 17th century
    c. 18th century
    d. 19th century

Answers

  1. A
  2. B
  3. D
  4. C
  5. B

Sources

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  2. Bunny.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2020.
  3. “Bunny.” The New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 232.  
  4. Glueck, Grace. “Neil Farber — New Drawings.” The New York Times, 13 Jul 2001. 
  5. Ifeanyi, KC. “The ‘Coded Bias’ documentary is ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ for Big Tech algorithms.’ Fast Company, 12 Nov 2020. 
  6. McGinty, Jo Craven. “Boom-or-Bust Breeding Cycle That Helps the Mighty Oak Survive.” The Wall Street Journal, 4 Nov 2016. 
  7. Rabbit.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed., Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2020. 
  8. Rabbit.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2020.
  9. Rabbit.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2020.McGinty, Jo Craven. “Boom-or-Bust Breeding Cycle That Helps the Mighty Oak Survive.” The Wall Street Journal, 4 Nov 2016. 
  10. “Rabbit.” The New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 1436.
  11. Rabbit hole.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2020.
  12. Smith, Andrew T. “Hare.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 2 May 2020. 
  13. Smith, Andrew T. “Rabbit.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 20 Oct 2020. 
  14. Vella, David, and Thomas M. Donnelly. “Basic Anatomy, Physiology, and Husbandry,” 3rd ed., Elsevier, 2012. 
  15. Wing, Arianne. “Some China Alley stories remained tucked away.” The Harvard Sentinel, 12 Nov 2020.