Q: When I was growing up in New Haven, CT, my mother told me that saying “rabbits” as the first word of the month brings good luck. I’ve lived elsewhere since then and many people haven’t heard of the word’s lucky powers. Where does this belief comes from?
A: The custom has been around for more than a century, but we can’t find any authoritative information on its origin. Our guess is that it may have been influenced by the much older practice of keeping a rabbit’s foot as a good-luck charm.
The earliest written example we’ve found for the usage is from the March 13, 1909, issue of Notes and Queries, a scholarly journal devoted to English language, literature, and history. A contributor, identified only by initials, submitted this query:
“ ‘RABBITS’ FOR LUCK.—My two daughters are in the habit of saying ‘Rabbits’ on the first day of each month. The word must be spoken aloud, and be the first word said in the month. It brings luck for that month. Other children, I find, use the same formula. I shall be glad to know if this is a common and old custom, and what is the meaning of the word ‘rabbits.’ A. M.”
Two readers of Notes and Queries responded in the March 27, 1909, issue.
One (identified as Jas. Platt, Jun.) merely offered advice on the best way to use the term: “The word to be most efficacious must be spoken up the chimney, and be the first word said in the month. I am told that if this is done the performer will receive a present.”
The other reader (W. B. Gerish) noted that The English Dialect Dictionary (1898-1905) had “numerous references to the use of the term ‘rabbit’ as an expletive,” but none of them used it in “the formula specified” by A. M. (As an expletive, “rabbit” has meant something like “drat.”)
However, Gerish speculated that “the employment of the term by children is evidently a survival of the ancient superstitious belief in the efficacy of this or similar expressions as charms to avert evil.”
Our theory, as we’ve said, is that the tradition may have been influenced by the earlier association of rabbits with good luck. The Oxford English Dictionary has a citation from the late 1600s for the carrying of a rabbit’s foot as a good-luck charm.
When the word “rabbit” first appeared in English in the late 1300s, according to the OED, it referred to a young rabbit.
An adult was called a “coney” (or “cony”), a usage that’s now considered regional. English borrowed both words from French. The ultimate source of “coney” is cuniculus, Latin for rabbit, while rabotte may have been French dialect for a rabbit or rabbit hole.
The OED’s earliest “rabbit” citation, which also refers to “coney,” is from John Trevisa’s translation (sometime before 1398) of De Proprietatibus Rerum [On the Property of Things], an early encyclopedia, by the Franciscan scholar Bartholomaeus Anglicus:
“Conynges … bringen forþ [forth] many rabettes & multiplien ful swiþe [exceedingly].”
The first Oxford reference to the carrying of a rabbit’s foot for good luck is from The Wits Paraphras’d, Matthew Stevenson’s irreverent, 1680 translation of Ovid: “But now too late, I’ve one to do’t, / And you may kiss the Rabits foot.”
In the 20th century, according to the dictionary’s citations, the plural “rabbits” (as well as the phrase “white rabbits”) came to be “uttered for good luck, esp. on the first day of the month.” (We’ve found several other variations, including “rabbit,” “rabbit, rabbit,” “rabbit, rabbit, rabbit,” and even “bunny, bunny.”)
The OED, which doesn’t offer an explanation for the usage, has these examples:
“On the first day of the month you have to say ‘Rabbits.’ If you say it to me first, I have to give you a present, and if I say it to you first, you have to give me a present.” (From Courts of Idleness, a 1920 collection of short stories by Dornford Yates, a pseudonym of the English writer Cecil William Mercer.)
“I hear the clock strike midnight and say ‘rabbits’ …. That is the end of 1949.” (From a 1949 entry in the diary of the English diplomat Harold Nicolson.)
“ ‘On the first morning of the month,’ notes a typical informant, ‘before speaking to anyone else, one must say “White rabbits, white rabbits, white rabbits” for luck.’ ” (From The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, a 1959 book by Iona and Peter Opie, a married team of British folklorists.)
“Besides, behind her back, rabbits rabbits, she’s crossing her treacherous fingers.” (From The Ground Beneath Her Feet, a 1999 novel by Salman Rushdie.)
“I have said ‘White Rabbits’ at the very moment of waking on every single first day of every single month that has passed. My mother … told me to do it, to bring good fortune.” (From an article by the British author Simon Winchester in the Nov. 2, 2006, issue of the International Herald Tribune.)
All the OED citations are from British sources, but the usage has had its adherents on the other side of the pond, as you’re well aware.
For example, the final volume of The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore (1964) has this example: “On the first day of the month, say ‘Rabbit! rabbit! rabbit!’ and the first thing you know, you will get a present from someone you like very much.”
The seven-volume collection, gathered by the Duke University folklorist from 1912 to 1943, also notes citations from other sources for similar sayings heard in Pennsylvania and New Mexico.
The Dictionary of American Regional English has examples from Wisconsin, South Carolina, Maine, and Massachusetts.
Here’s a Wisconsin citation from Badger Folklore (1952): “Another correspondent … says that in her family it is a tradition to court Lady Luck by saying ‘Rabbit! Rabbit!’ as first words on the first day of every month. Then you climb out of bed over the foot and are bound to prosper.”
Edie Clark, a New Hampshire author, says in a Sept. 1, 2008, article in Yankee Magazine that it’s been a tradition in her family since her grandmother’s day for “rabbit” to be the first word spoken at the start of each month.
And Alan Zweibel, a former Saturday Night Live writer, notes in a 1994 radio interview that Gilda Radner had said “bunny, bunny” on the first day of each month since she was a child. In fact, the title of Zweibel’s 1994 book about his friendship with Radner is entitled Bunny Bunny.
Many American rabbiters learned of the custom from the cable channel Nickelodeon, which helped popularize it in the US in the 1990s by encouraging children to say “rabbit, rabbit” on the first day of each month.
We’ll end with an expanded (and earlier) version of that last OED citation, from an op-ed article by Simon Winchester in the Oct. 7. 2006, issue of the New York Times:
“Ever since I was 4 years old, I have said ‘White Rabbits’ at the very moment of waking on every single first day of every single month that has passed. My mother, tucking me into bed one night, told me to do it, to bring good fortune; and since I have enjoyed fair good fortune for all of my subsequent days I have assumed that the acceptance of this moderate and harmless habit has had something to do with it, and so has reinforced my need to keep up the practice.
“Besides, it is an ancient and thoroughly English conceit: old folk in Yorkshire and Cornwall speak of it having been practiced for many centuries (though the first O.E.D. citation of anything similar is 1920). Social historians assert that the monthly invocation of this most star-kissed of mammals (think rabbit’s-foot key rings, the Easter Bunny, the awesome fecundity of the Australian model of Oryctolagus) is entirely explicable. It would be pretty hard to imagine waking up and crying ‘mouse’ or ‘warthog’ or ‘mole’ and feeling quite so warmly confident of good fortune.”
[Note: On Aug. 1, 2016, a reader comments, “Dear friends told me about this delightful superstition about 25 years ago. But their version was just a hair more demanding: In order to be lucky the following month, you had to say ‘hare, hare’ the last thing before going to sleep, and ‘rabbit, rabbit’ first thing on waking. I imagine there are other variations.”]