Tuesday, February 05, 2019

Zoë zoologist

This morning I took Alexander and Zoë to story time at the library. They were very happy to get to go because Alexander likes to go anywhere and Zoë was starved for story time (we've missed the last few weeks because of sickness). I feel like I've been so busy lately that I haven't really had time to listen to my kids and the funny things they say, so I was grateful a few quiet moments with the kids this morning.

When the librarian asked the kids what they knew about penguins, Zoë confidently raised her hand and when she was called on she said, "They wobble and they swim, but they don't fly."

She 100% cannot hear the difference between waddle and wobble, so she was wobbling around like a penguin all day. In her defense, the words also have rather similar meanings.

This reminds me of when we were sitting around waiting for Alexander to get his cast last week. I'd brought an alphabet book with us and Zoë insisted on reading it herself. She "reads" a lot of books by herself fairly well. I'm amazed by how many books/stories she has memorized, which she will read to herself as she turns the pages. She'll even pull out books we haven't read in months and "read" them, though usually with a few more errors than the book(s)-de-jour that she has me read to her over and over again.

Anyway, the R page of this alphabet book features a rabbit, but when she got to that page she said, "R is for bunny. Buh, buh, bunny."

So I corrected her and said, "You're right. Bunny begins with a buh-sound, but this letter is R and R makes a rrrrrrr sound, so on this page they want us to say, ' R is for rabbit. Rrrrr, rrrr, rabbit."

"Mom," she told me with the full force of her toddler-PhD voice, "Bunnies are rabbits, so this is a bunny!"

Our room was right next to the nurses' station and they all cracked up when they heard her tell me this so knowledgeably.

"You're right," I told her. "Bunnies are rabbits and rabbits are bunnies, so this picture could be either a bunny or a rabbit, but since this is the R page, the author would like us to think of the word rabbit to go with the letter R. What letter does bunny start with?"

"Bunny," she said. "Bunny. Buh-buh-bunny. Buh-buh-B!"

"That's right!" I said.

But then she wanted to know why bunny rabbits get two different words for one creature—that doesn't make much sense (though it isn't the only case). I explained that we have "pet" names for all sorts of domesticated critters: cat and kitty, dog and doggy, horse and horsey, pig and piggy...those all seemed to make sense to her. Rabbit and bunny did not because bunny isn't intuitively a diminutive form of rabbit.

I didn't have a good answer for her, so I looked it up.

The word rabbit once only meant young rabbits (the adults were called coneys). It's got European roots (German/French/Dutch all borrowing from each other, before being borrowed by English speakers).

Bunny, on the other hand, is possibly from the French word bon (meaning good), or from the Scottish word bun meaning "tail of a hare." It was once used as a pet word for squirrels and then for a woman or child before, finally, being applied to rabbits. It has not lost its use for describing women.

Dog and pup was another combination that was baffling me as I got to thinking about it. Dog is thought to be a breed-specific word, used to describe a rather powerful breed of hound (which was the preferred word for dog until then). Dog became more common in English and English-speakers stopped referring to dogs, in general, as hounds (and instead that became breed-specific—hound dog).

Puppy, on the other hand, is from the French word poupée, meaning "doll" and was used to describe the toy-like dogs rich ladies would carry around. Eventually the meaning came to mean a "young" dog, rather than a "toy" dog (though the toy dogs were actual dogs). It shares a root with puppet (or, poppet). The real word for a young dog is whelp.

So these are kind of odd animal pairs that evolved tangentially and are completely unrelated to each other (unlike, for example, cat and kitten which can be traced back to pretty much the same root word).


  1. So interesting! And your talk about bunny made me think of the bun we wear in our hair -- it actually is not unlike the tail of a hare, is it?

  2. My Twenty-three year old asked the same question the other day. Thank you!

  3. That was interesting; thanks for sharing!