The Grammarphobia Blog

Bye, baby bunting

Q: I’m curious about the term “baby bunting” in this nursery rhyme: “Bye, baby bunting,  / Father’s gone a-hunting,  / Mother’s gone a-milking, / Sister’s gone a-silking, / Brother’s gone to buy a skin  / To wrap the baby bunting in.” Any idea of the origin?

A: “Bunting” has been a term of endearment since at least as far back as the 1660s. The origins of the word are unknown but it’s had a long association with plumpness, with bottoms, and with “butt” (both the noun and the verb).

In Scottish, according to the OED, the term buntin means short and thick, or plump. A similar term in Welsh, bontin, means the rump.

And in Scottish as well as in dialectal English, both “bunt” and “bun” have been used to refer to the tail of a rabbit or hare.

The verb “bunt” was used in the 1800s to mean the same as “butt” – to strike, knock, or push. (Yes, this is where the baseball term “bunt” comes from, circa 1889.)

And in a 19th-century Sussex dialect, to “bunt” was to rock a cradle with one’s foot (by pushing or “butting” it).

The adjective “bunting” has been used to mean plump, swelling, or filled out since the 1500s.

John Jamieson, in An Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language (1808-25), defined buntin as “short and thick; as a buntin brat, a plump child.”

In the phrase “baby bunting,” the Oxford English Dictionary says, “the meaning (if there be any at all) may possibly be” as in Jamieson’s definition.

At bottom, if you’ll pardon the expression, the phrase in the nursery rhyme seems to be an affectionate reference to an infant’s plumpness or to its rosy rump.

The earliest version of the nursery rhyme dates from the 1780s, and the longer version you quote has been traced to 1805.

Surprisingly, the OED has no reference to the garment known as a “bunting” – an infant’s cuddly, cocoon-like, hooded outerwear. This sense of the word dates from 1922, according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

The name of the garment, according to our old Merriam-Webster’s New International Dictionary  (the unabridged second edition), is a reference to the “baby bunting” in the nursery rhyme.

In case you’re wondering, the noun “bunting” has been used for another kind of cloth – the open-weave kind used to make flags – as well as for a family of birds (possibly because of their plumpness.) 

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