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Etymonline doesn't expound the etymology and states no more than:

rarebit (n.)
1785, perversion of (Welsh) rabbit, as if from rare (adj.) + bit (n.).

Does anyone have more insight into the etymology of "Welsh rarebit"?

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    The history of Welsh rarebit / rabbit is covered by the earlier question How did an egg and cheese dish come to be known as “Woodchuck(s)”? Feb 2, 2020 at 18:02
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    @FumbleFingers - The focus of the earlier question is on an entirely different thing, but it would be better to have a question devoted specifically to the etymology of "Welsh rarebit".
    – Justin
    Feb 2, 2020 at 18:22
  • That's not obvious to me. Although that earlier question is primarily focused on "Woodchuck", it seems to me it gives all the relevant background for "Welsh rarebit / rabbit". And to my mind the essential linking factor is "non-meat foodstuff whose name (facetiously) includes the name of an animal" (the later switch to "rarebit" also being essentially "facetious", imho). Feb 2, 2020 at 18:36
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    The joke about the Welsh fondness for cheese (perhaps because they couldn't afford meat) is very ancient - see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Welsh_rarebit , scrolling down to 'In culture'. Feb 3, 2020 at 8:47
  • Speculating here, but perhaps Etymonline is referring to entries for rare (adj.2) meaning "lightly cooked" and bit (n.1) meaning "small piece"?
    – nollidge
    Feb 5, 2020 at 18:56

2 Answers 2

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The origin is unknown, but its current version appears to be just an attempt to provide a term more suitable to a dish:

The first recorded reference to the dish comes from 1725, where it was called ‘Welsh rabbit’. This, historians believe, caught on as a joke, but their interpretations differ. In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the English would often give laughably fancy names to any food or product common to a region or profession.

Use of the term Welsh rarebit began towards the end of the 18th century and became more commonplace as the dish gained in popularity. The name change was probably an attempt to make the name more fitting to the dish and drop some patronizing overtones, according to the Oxford Dictionary.

(theculturetrip.com)

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    There are other examples of meaty names given to dishes with no meat or some unexpected meat. Staying with Wales, there are Glamorgan sausages (cheese, leeks and egg). I also recall the Czech dish Moravský vrabec ("Moravian sparrow") - no sparrows were harmed: it is a pork stew.
    – JeremyC
    Feb 2, 2020 at 22:52
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    There is also a mention of "Welsh Rabbet" in Nathan Bailey, An Universal Etymological English Dictionary, second edition (1724) in the entry for ramekin: "RAMEKIN, {Ramequin, F.} toasted Bread and Cheese, a Welsh Rabbet."
    – Sven Yargs
    Feb 2, 2020 at 23:53
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    @SvenYargs I would be interesting to know whether the Bailey dictionary spells "rabbit" as "rabbet". It was, of course, published before spelling was entirely standardised.
    – BoldBen
    Feb 3, 2020 at 20:15
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    @BoldBen: Yes. Bailey's definition for rabbet is "a Cony, a Creature well known." Dictionaries before Bailey's tended to ignore "words well known" in favor of obscure "difficult" words whose meaning even educated readers might be uncertain about; as a result, a number of them have entries for rabbet (always spelled with an e) as a verb but not as a noun. Bailey doesn't mention rabbit as an alternative spelling either, and there is no entry for it in his dictionary.
    – Sven Yargs
    Feb 3, 2020 at 20:33
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    @SvenYargs That's interesting. It suggests that "Welsh Rabbet" (or Rabbit) was a widely understood term in the early 18th century even though the first recorded reference is said in this answer to be 1725.
    – BoldBen
    Feb 4, 2020 at 20:45
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I think that the etymology in the Wikipedia article @Kate mentions is worth quoting:

Rabbit and rarebit

The word rarebit is a corruption of rabbit, "Welsh rabbit" being first recorded in 1725, and "rarebit" in 1781. [Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd Edition, 2011, s.v. 'Welsh rabbit' and 'Welsh rarebit']

Rarebit is not used on its own, except in alluding to the dish. [OED] In 1785, Francis Grose defined a "Welch rabbit" [sic] as "a Welch rare bit", without saying which came first. Later writers were more explicit: for example, Schele de Vere in 1866 clearly considers "rabbit" to be a corruption of "rarebit".

Many commentators have mocked the misconstrual of the jocular "rabbit" as the serious "rarebit":

  • Brander Matthews (1892): "few [writers] are as ignorant and dense as the unknown unfortunate who first tortured the obviously jocular Welsh rabbit into a pedantic and impossible Welsh rarebit..."
  • Sivert N. Hagen (1904): "Welsh rabbit... is of jocular origin... Where, however, the word is used by the sophisticated, it is often 'corrected' to Welsh rarebit, as if 'rare bit'"
  • Ambrose Bierce (1911): "Rarebit n. A Welsh rabbit, in the speech of the humorless, who point out that it is not a rabbit. To whom it may be solemnly explained that the comestible known as toad in the hole is really not a toad, and that ris de veau à la financière is not the smile of a calf prepared after the recipe of a she banker."
  • H.W. Fowler (1926): "Welsh Rabbit is amusing and right. Welsh Rarebit is stupid and wrong."

Welsh rabbit has become a standard savoury listed by culinary authorities including Auguste Escoffier, Louis Saulnier and others; they tend to use rarebit, communicating to a non-English audience that it is not a meat dish.

Eighteenth-century English cookbooks reveal that it was then considered to be a luscious supper or tavern dish, based on the fine cheddar-type cheeses and the wheat bread [...]. Surprisingly, it seems there was not only a Welsh Rabbit, but also an English Rabbit, an Irish and a Scotch Rabbit, but nary a rarebit.

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