08 November 2010

Rabbit or Coney?

There’s a scene in one of the early episodes of Sex and the City where Miranda introduces Charlotte to a new, improved and essential article of feminine well-being. Such appliances have been around for a surprisingly long time, they were mechanised and electrified over a century ago. Previously, there was medical treatment available, though the physician had to do things manually. The new electrical appliances were labour saving, saved medical fees and didn’t need an appointment. Physicians approved the manual method for the treatment for female disorders, collectively labelled as hysteria. Hysteria derives from hystéra, the womb or uterus. Charlotte’s new accessory was named from a resemblance to a coney’s auricles: it was The Rabbit.
Rabbit has taken over completely from coney, which apart from heraldry and in law, remains only in the collective memory in place names. There’s a Coney Island in New York, and several in N Ireland. Why should a perfectly serviceable, unremarkable word have so completely disappeared?
There is a clue, perhaps, in an entry from Pepys’s diary. Pepys, in the course of his social duties, was interrupted by Mrs Pepys. She, he wrote:
“coming up suddenly, did find me imbracing the girl con my hand sub su coats; and endeed I was with my main in her cunny. I was at a wonderful loss upon it and the girl also”
Didn’t stop Pepys from further chasing Ms Willet, though.
Back to the mysterious disappearing coney (or cony). You and I probably pronounce this as ‘cone - ee’. Previously, it was pronounced to rhyme with bunny. Bunny is probably rhyming slang for coney. There were no rabbits in Britain until the Norman invasion, and no Old English word for them. But there were coneys in the Bible, and as Lessons were read aloud on Sundays, the clergy were unhappy with the usual pronunciation of coney because of its association with the other cunny. The Oxford English Dictionary rather coyly indicates 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”. Also, it seems coney was gradually replaced by rabbit, seen or rather heard as altogether more wholesome.
Would Charlotte have been more pleased with a rabbit or a coney?

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