Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Are the words coney and rabbit full synonyms in English? Are there any slight differences in usage or meaning? Are there any cases when one word is more appropriate in the modern writing or speech than another one?

Merriam-Webster and Wiktionary reference coney as a rabbit (especially, the European rabbit) without additional remarks. The OED does the same, but with a note British & Heraldry.

share|improve this question
    
Hello Denis! Questions that can simply be answered by quoting or linking to a dictionary definition are off topic on EL&U! However, this question can be improved by reporting what you are searchig for and what confuses you! -1 for vagueness! –  Elberich Schneider Sep 9 '12 at 9:34
    
Can we have some context, please? Conies in Psalm 104:18, for example, does not mean rabbits. –  Andrew Leach Sep 9 '12 at 9:44
    
See Wikipedia for some more instances of what it could refer to. –  Andrew Leach Sep 9 '12 at 10:09
2  
When I hear coney, I think hot dog, not rabbit. –  J.R. Sep 9 '12 at 11:10
    
@J.R. And whence the same Coney Island? It was the Isle of Cunny Bunnies, just as the Canary Islands were the Isles of the Dog. –  tchrist Sep 9 '12 at 14:12
show 3 more comments

6 Answers

up vote 13 down vote accepted

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.
  1. In O.T. used to translate Hebrew shāphān, a small pachyderm (Hyrax Syriacus), living in caves and clefts of the rocks in Palestine.
  2. 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.
  3. † 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.


Edit

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.

share|improve this answer
1  
This is right on. I believe that "coney" is more common in certain demographics and quite rare in others, leading the other answerers to declare that they've never or rarely heard it in use. In my own rural midwestern American demographic, though, it's uncommon but no more uncommon than eating rabbit. –  Mark Beadles Sep 9 '12 at 16:10
3  
+1 for the comprehensive answer. I'm from North Yorkshire and my granddad was a gamekeeper. For years as a kid, I never quite equated rabbits (white fluffy things the neighbours had as pets) with coneys (grey/brown pests that got shot and eaten) –  Andrew Sep 9 '12 at 18:06
    
Interesting - if 'rabbit' used to be the name given to the young, any idea why rabbit young are now called kits/kittens? –  Mynamite Aug 25 '13 at 21:01
add comment

I've only heard the word coney in one context:

I've treacle and toffee, I've tea and I've coffee,
Soft tommy and succulent chops;
I've chickens and conies, and pretty polonies,
And excellent peppermint drops.

(from Little Buttercup's Song, HMS Pinafore, Gilbert and Sullivan)

In that usage, it's a full synonym. From the Online Etymology Dictionary:

Rabbit arose 14c. to mean the young of the species, but gradually pushed out the older word 19c., after British slang picked up coney as a punning synonym for cunny "cunt". The word was in the King James Bible, however, so it couldn't be entirely dropped, and the solution was to change the pronunciation of the original short vowel (rhyming with honey, money) to rhyme with boney.

So, yes, it's a full synonym, but out of use these days, unless you're into musicals.

share|improve this answer
    
@jwpat7 Thanks for the spelling correction. Good grief, I must have been tired. –  Lunivore Sep 11 '12 at 22:01
add comment

I've never heard the word coney before.

The OED has five sub-definitions for coney meaning rabbit. The first four the most recent citations in the late 19th century, and the fifth in the 16th century:

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.

Other definitions of coney or cony are for rabbit fur, a number of other small animals, a term of endearment, and a kind of shell-fish.

Therefore, unless you're going to use coney in a very specific context where it has a special meaning for your audience, you're better off using the much more well-known rabbit.

share|improve this answer
4  
Goof answer, but bear in mind there are situations where an unfamiliar word for rabbit is positively desirable; at the butcher's, for example, or when discussing your new fur coat. –  TimLymington Sep 9 '12 at 11:22
2  
I suspect that you've never heard it quite possibly because rabbit's not a regular part of your diet. As eating rabbit became more rare, a specialized term for rabbits-as-food became more rare. –  Mark Beadles Sep 9 '12 at 16:12
add comment

In most (if not all) of the USA, coney is a word for a smallish hotdog.

enter image description here

The first time I heard it used in a context that clearly called for a game animal, you can imagine how confused I was.

The animal here is referred to only as a Rabbit or a Bunny (sometimes Bunny-Rabbit). I almost never hear "hare" used, unless somebody is trying to make a pun of some kind. I have never heard "coney" used to refer to the animal in conversation. Only in literature.

share|improve this answer
add comment

Unfortunately, its been a long time since I last read Enid Blyton; but I recall coming across 'coney' in some Famous Five books.

IIRC it wasn't used as an exact synonym for rabbit; the impression I got was a local smaller variety of rabbit (something like a country mouse instead of a city mouse e.g.)

share|improve this answer
add comment

The 'Journal of Thomas Dineley' on his tour of Co. Clare, Ireland in 1681 — "Cony Island took its name from the great number of Rabbits and Coneys there..."— seems to suggest, at that time, coneys were distinct from rabbits. Maybe hares?

share|improve this answer
    
I don’t know of any hares native to that area. –  tchrist Aug 25 '13 at 16:08
    
@tchrist - Clearly the author thought there was some difference in nuance between the two words. Perhaps he was using "rabbit" in the old sense the OED references as "a young coney" ("coney" being roughly what we call "rabbit" today) –  T.E.D. Aug 26 '13 at 17:44
add comment

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.