Rabbit or hare, and familiarly bunny, are now the common words for the critters once commonly called coney. The OED reports that coney is now in “more or less familiar use with game-keepers, poachers, game-dealers and cooks”. Tolkien alluded to this in The Hobbit, for
as all readers of J.R.R. Tolkien know, a coney is just an older name for a rabbit, as Bilbo observes when interrogating Gandalf about Beorn the skin-changer, and which Sam later cooks up in a stew:
- ‘What! a furrier, a man that calls rabbits conies, when he doesn’t turn their skins into squirrels?’ asked Bilbo.
- Our bread chokes you, and raw coney chokes me.
- If you give me a coney, the coney’s mine, see, to cook, if I have a mind.
- Sam busied himself with his pans. ‘What a hobbit needs with coney,’ he said to himself, ‘is some herbs and roots, especially taters – not to mention bread.
There’s some left, if you want to try stewed coney.’
- We shall have it like a coney in a trap.
- But now he has done worse trespass than only to go coney-snaring in the uplands: he has dared to come to Henneth Annyn, and his life is forfeit.
Rabbits are something of an anachronism in Tolkien’s legendarium, not being native to the historical region he was depicting, so he usually chose an older word to describe them. Our word rabbit originally meant only the young, not the full-grown version, for which coney was reserved. The OED tells an interesting tale for the word coney:
- a. A rabbit: formerly the proper and ordinary name, but now superseded in general use by rabbit, which was originally a name for the young only.
- b. Still retained in the Statutes, and in more or less familiar use with game-keepers, poachers, game-dealers and cooks: in market reports, now usually meaning a wild rabbit.
- c. It is also the name in Heraldry.
- d. dial. In some districts applied to a young rabbit, but elsewhere more properly to an old one.
- e. (without pl.). The flesh of the rabbit.
- a. The skin or fur of the rabbit. (The earliest recorded use in Eng.) Obs. or dial.
- b. A hat made of rabbit-fur (in place of beaver). U.S.
- In O.T. used to translate Hebrew shāphān, a small pachyderm (Hyrax Syriacus), living in caves and clefts of the rocks in Palestine.
- Applied also locally to the Cape Hyrax or Das (Hyrax Capensis), and to the Pika or Calling Hare (Lagomys princeps) of the Rocky Mountains; also with qualifications to other small quadrupeds.
- † a. A term of endearment for a woman. Obs.
- b. Also indecently.
- † A dupe, a gull; the victim of the ‘cony-catcher’. Obs.
- a. Some kind of shell-fish; ? a cone.
- b. A name for the Nigger-fish (Epinephelus punctatus) of the West Indies.
As you see by sense 5b, it turns out that coney used to rhyme with honey and money, but this was just too punny for its own good. One of the citations for senese 5b:
- 1622 Massinger Virg. Mart. ɪɪ. i ―A pox on your Christian cockatrices! They cry, like poulterers’ wives, ‘No money, no coney’.
So why do we rhyme it with bony now instead of with bunny as previously? Too many uncunning punsters, basically, giving it a vulgar sense. Here the OED’s entymology entry for it:
The current form represents OFr. conil, connil, cogn. w. Pr. conil, Sp. conejo, Pg. coelho, Ital. coneglio:-L. cunīcul-us rabbit (also burrow, underground passage, military mine), according to ancient authors a word of Spanish origin. The OFr. pl. (with l suppressed) coniz, later conis, gave an Eng. pl. conys, conies, and this a singular cony, conie. The ME. cunin, konyne, conyng was a. OFr. conin, connin, Anglo-Fr. coning, a parallel form to conil, which gave also MDutch conijn, Dutch konijn, and, with a for o, LG. kanîn, whence mod.G. dim. kaninchen. In Eng. the form cunyng, cunning came down to the 16th c.; but from the 12th c. onward it varied also with cunig, conig, connyg.
The historical pronunciation is with /ʌ/; common spellings from 16th to 18th c. were cunnie, cunney, cunny, and the word regularly rimed with honey, money, as indicated also by the spelling coney; but during the 19th c. the pronunciation with long ō has gradually crept in. This pronunciation is largely due to the obsolescence of the word in general use, while it occurred in the Bible, and esp. in the Psalms, as the name of a foreign animal (sense 3); the oral tradition being broken, readers guessed at the word from the spelling. It is possible, however, that the desire to avoid certain vulgar associations with the word in the cunny form, may have contributed to the preference for a different pronunciation in reading the Scriptures. Walker knew only the cunny pronunciation; Smart (1836) says ‘it is familiarly pronounced cunny’, but cōny is ‘proper for solemn reading’. The obsolescence of the word is also a cause of the unfixed spelling; the Bible of 1611 has conie, cony, conies, modern editions coney, conies (cf. money, monies), an irregularity retained in the Revision of 1885.
The rabbit is evidently of late introduction into Britain and Northern Europe: it has no native name in Celtic or Teutonic, and there is no mention of it in England before the Norman period; in the quotations the fur, perhaps imported, appears before the animal. The Welsh cwning, cwningen, is from ME.; the Irish coinnín, and Gaelic coinean, coinein from ME. or AFr.
About the time that coney was getting bad press for its punny association with cunny, the word bunny appeared as a more clean-minded but still rhyming synonyn for the rabbit version, making it something of a minced oath. But the pun was already there in the original Latin cuniculus, so it’s been with us for a long time.
Rabbits and hares are in the Leporid family, which along with rock coneys, make up the Lagomorph order. Rock coneys are a local name for the pika, as OED sense 4 explains. However, it now goes by a different genus: it’s actually Ochotona princeps. But it’s still a coney, even though it isn’t a rabbit or a hare. Sometimes people even call it a whistling hare — not that it is a hare, mind you. Regular folks are very particular about common names for things, you see.
So coney is a sort of older, local, or rustic name for any leporid or even lagomorph, one perhaps still favored by Bilbo’s furriers.
Another place you might come across coney is in the dialect word to coney-fogle, also spelled connyfogle. It means to ingratiate oneself, to cheat by bewildering. [Sources: the English Dialect Dictionary, and also Provincial Words and Expressions Current in Lincolnshire (1866).] This is probably related to the OED’s sense 6 of being a dupe, not to its sense leporid 1, although it sounds rather vulgar if you’re a punny-bunny about both halves.
Coney-fogle may have given rise to the later U.S. colloquialism to honey-fuggle, again meaning to dupe, deceive, or swindle, but not quite so vulgarly. Still seems a bit naughty, though, especially if you haven’t heard it before.