An excerpt from Neal Whitman's book-in-progress, The Babbler's Lexicon, explains how "Little Bunny Foo Foo" became the Forrest Gump of English literature.
As it happens, the variation between “foo” and “frou” in this name is exactly the same variation we get in the adjective “foo foo” or “frou frou,” so it’s likely that the name “Foo Foo” or “Frou Frou” originated from that. The adjective “foo foo” is a phonetic simplification of “frou frou,” and here’s what Merriam-Webster online has to say about “frou frou”:
Nineteenth-century Europe featured a lot of sophisticated fashions—especially in Paris, a city considered by many to be the fashion capital of the world. Women's dresses were often made of drooping layers of fabric (such as satin or silk) that rustled as the women moved around, and “froufrou” was the French word coined in imitation of the sound they made. The word made its first appearance in English in 1870 as a noun meaning “rustling.” It later came to mean “ostentatious decoration,” and its usage expanded beyond the world of fashion to other crafts such as architecture and interior design. These days it also shows up as the adjective “frou-frou,” meaning “very heavily decorated and fancy,” as in “frou-frou designs.”
Or, I might add, “frou frou” or “foo foo” drinks, with fruity flavors and umbrellas in them.
The Connection Between Popeye and Foo Foo
So the melody and the name “Foo Foo” or “Frou Frou” suggest an origin later than the 1880s. Unfortunately, I haven’t fully pinned down when the noun or adjective “frou frou” began to turn up as “foo foo,” so let’s look at another clue to when “Bunny Foo Foo” was created: the word “goon,” which entered the language in the twentieth century. The Oxford English Dictionary has it from 1921, meaning “a stolid, dull, or stupid person.” The word really gained popularity after 1933, when E. C. Segar introduced goons as a race of creatures in his Thimble Theatre comic strip—the comic strip better known as the origin of Popeye the Sailor. The line “Hare today, goon tomorrow” even appeared in the 1938 animated cartoon “Popeye in Goonland,” which I’ll link to in the transcript. So if “Hare today, goon tomorrow” is part of the original skit, “Little Bunny Foo Foo” could have been created as early as the 1930s.
However, the poem seems to have been created somewhat later than that. The earliest I’ve that I’ve found someone claiming to have heard it is in the 1950s, in a discussion thread on an Internet forum. Most of the participants in that thread recall having heard “Little Bunny Foo Foo” in the 1960s; one specifically mentioned 1966, and another claimed not to have heard it until the late 1960s. In any case, the earliest attestations I’ve been able to find are two from 1970. One is in Beverly Cleary’s novel Runaway Ralph. The talking mouse Ralph finds himself at a summer camp, and is frightened to hear a boy singing “Little Rabbit Fru-fru.” The other is from an article in the January 17 issue of The New Yorker, which mentions “little Bunny Phoo Phoo” (spelled P-H-O-O) as a character in a children’s story. These attestations indicate an origin earlier than 1970.