Header image of books


Pronounced /kjuˈnɪkjʊlə(r)/Help with pronunciation

Cunicular simply means “rabbit-like”. I recently came across this very rare word in an science-fictional work:

If it was hard being a small boy in a time of rapid change, it was a doubly hard burden to be a meter-tall rabbit cursed with human sentience and cunicular instincts.

Singularity Sky, by Charles Stross, 2003.

It would take too long to explain the background to this Carrollian image — you’ll just have to read the book. The rabbit does have a waistcoat, but no pocket watch is mentioned.

Cunicular is better known to biologists than to SF authors. It derives from Latin cuniculus, rabbit (itself taken from Green kyniklos), which is also the source of the old English name for the animal, coney or cony. The Latin word could also mean a burrow, an underground passage, or a military mine. Variations on it appear in systematic scientific names — an American owl, to take one example, is formally known as Speotyto cunicularia because it lives in burrows.

Cunicular has occasionally been used in botany and medicine for various kinds of tubular formation. Apart from that, sightings are extremely rare. This is one of the few, from a description of an old Spanish method of hunting hawks by imitating the distress call of a rabbit:

A crab's claw, or the green bark of a two-inch twig slipped off its stalk, will, in the lips of an adept, produce just such a cry of cunicular distress.

Unexplored Spain, by Abel Chapman and Walter J Buck, 1910.

Search World Wide Words

Support this website!

Donate via PayPal. Select your currency from the list and click Donate.

Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 22 Aug. 2009
Last updated: 4 Mar. 2015

Advice on copyright

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.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/weirdwords/ww-cun1.htm
Last modified: 4 March 2015.