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Not a happy bunny

Q From John Gray: Why did not a happy bunny come into existence? Surely bunnies are largely devoid of facial expression, so determining their state of happiness or otherwise is not readily possible. Online searches seem to say nothing about the origin of the phrase.

A People have been writing about this in a mildly puzzled way at least since John Mullan included it as his Phrase of the Week in The Guardian during November 2002, saying it was “now everywhere” and that “It started being common four or five years ago, especially as an understated description of a person’s displeasure.”

The earliest example I know of appeared in Punch magazine in November 1989 and I would have said that it had already peaked in popularity by 2002. However, a British newspaper archive shows that it has been used even more in the past two or three years. It long ago became a catchphrase and a cliché, mostly in Britain. It has also spawned its inverse, though it is still much less common to learn that somebody is a happy bunny than an unhappy one.

(Americans prefer not a happy camper, a term almost certainly derived from the summer camps to which many young people are despatched every year, not always willingly or successfully. Related phrases are not a happy puppy and the British Commonwealth rhyming not a happy chappie.)

There’s a good reason for nobody online being able to say anything useful about the antecedents of not a happy bunny — no expert seems to have the slightest idea about its origin and most writers on contemporary slang have ignored it. Nigel Rees, presenter of the BBC radio quiz programme Quote ... Unquote, has for years included it as question 1368 in his list of unsolved phrase origins. This shows no signs of finding a solution any time soon.

It may be a disparaging comment drawn from children’s literature, in which fluffy bunny rabbits are usually happily hopping about. To refer to a person’s distress by saying he isn’t a happy bunny is to infantilise his emotions. But people sometimes use it about themselves, when it becomes self-deprecating. There may be a link to British television advertisements for the Duracell Bunny (matched in the US by ones for the Energizer Bunny). This is a pink rabbit, always with a fixed grin and in one of its early incarnations endlessly beating a drum. The adverts have been around for some decades (they began in 1973), so it’s not an implausible origin.

Other than that, all I’ve been able to do is add another mystified comment to the many that precede me. Add an appropriate bunny-related punchline if you like. I’m running out of energy.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 7 Sep. 2013

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 7 September 2013.