Q From Helen Jeffery in the UK: My late granddad had a quaint way of bidding people goodbye. He would say “Goodbye, and thank your mother for the rabbits”. Do you think that was just him being himself, or was it an expression in general use? He lived a bit further north than I do at the moment, in north-west Durham.
A You may be disappointed to hear that he didn’t invent it, though he was following in some famous footsteps.
A detailed discussion of this nonsense phrase appeared in the Australian language journal OzWords a decade ago, which made it clear that it has long been known in that country and is still to be heard. The stereotypical association of Australia with rabbits might suggest that the expression began its life there. Some Australians argue that it arose during the depression of the 1930s when money for food was scarce and rabbits were free to anybody who could catch them. It is said that rabbits became known during that period as underground mutton.
But the evidence says it isn’t native to Australia. One important pointer is this:
Bloom starts forward involuntarily and, half closing the door as he passes, takes the chocolate from his pocket and offers it nervously to Zoe. ZOE: (Sniffs his hair briskly) Hmmm! Thank your mother for the rabbits. I’m very fond of what I like.
Ulysses, by James Joyce, 1922.
More evidence comes from an oddly inconsequential snippet in an Australian newspaper, which happens to be the earliest occurrence of the phrase in print anywhere:
Lady Tree insists on trying to make her comrades laugh during the progress of the piece whilst she acts. One night, when she was playing the part of an elderly lady in “Diplomacy” she quite suddenly invented a new line in the play by saying “Thank your mother for the rabbits” to a parting guest. The audience enjoyed it so much that the actress has kept in the line ever since.
Goulburn Evening Penny Post (NSW), 8 Nov. 1913. Lady Tree was better known professionally as Mrs Beerbohm Tree, she being the wife of and collaborator with the actor-manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree.
We may guess the editors included this because they thought Australians would appreciate a reference to a phrase they knew. We may also be pretty sure Lady Tree didn’t make it up. The event, however humorous to the audience, wasn’t sufficiently important to spread public knowledge of it, since the number of appearances didn’t subsequently rise.
So is it Irish, as the Ulysses appearance implies? Almost certainly not, since Zoe makes clear in the book that she was born in Yorkshire. Your own experience also suggests an English source. Eric Partridge noted the phrase in his Dictionary of Catchphrases as having been “brought to my notice by the late Frank Shaw in 1969”. Frank Shaw was a Liverpudlian writer who did much to publicise the local dialect, Scouse. So the expression is quite strongly linked with northern England.
Beyond that, the trail runs into the sand. It’s probably late nineteenth century in date, perhaps from a catchphrase in some long-forgotten music-hall comedian’s act.
Sometimes mysteries are more fun than facts, though frustrating to enquirers.