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.
The Foo Foo Hoax
The strangest twist in the story of Little Bunny Foo Foo comes in a discussion from the online newsgroup alt.folklore.urban in 1997—the place where the creators of Snopes.com got their start, by the way. At that time, a tongue-in-cheek battle broke out over whether the “proper” title of the rhyme was “Little Bunny Foo Foo” or “Little Rabbit Foo Foo.” At one point, a poster named Dave Wilton posted what seems to be a definitive answer, but is actually an elaborate stream of trollery, designed to give AFU regulars a good laugh while testing the credulity of newbies. He begins by claiming that the bunny/rabbit variation stems from “two separate literary traditions,” and then goes on to turn Foo Foo into something like the Forrest Gump of the English literature universe, inserting him into Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a Shakespearean sonnet, a manuscript from the Plymouth Colony, an early draft of Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit, a letter by Zelda Fitzgerald, and one of Ernest Hemingway’s journal entries.
I’ll link to the source of this hoax in the episode notes, but here are a couple of the more entertaining highlights. The verse from Chaucer is from “The Knight’s Tale,” and goes:
And in the grove, at tyme and place yset,
This bunnie Fewfew and this field maus be met.
The first line is genuine, but the line about “bunnie Fewfew” has been substituted for the actual line 1636: “This Arcite and this Palamon ben met.” The Shakespearen sonnet goes like this:
Clear wells spring not, sweet birds sing not,
Green plants bring not forth their dye.
Herd stands weeping, flocks all sleeping,
Nymphs back peeping fearfully,
For Rabbitt Foofoo hath killed a mouse.
Wilton has quoted the first four lines of the third verse of this sonnet, and simply tacked on the line about Rabbitt Foofoo. Notice that this piece of phony baloney has “rabbit” instead of “bunny,” which Wilton attributes to the existence of two literary traditions.
The most ironic thing about this faux Foo Foo history is that Dave Wilton later went on to write the excellent and well-researched book Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends. [Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound] He should know better than to play with fire this way. I have seen his bogus history quoted as fact on at least two webpages, so I am including it here in order to clearly label it as phony. And I’m giving him three chances…
This podcast is an excerpt from Neal Whitman's book-in-progress, The Babbler's Lexicon. Neal has a PhD in Linguistics, blogs at LiteralMinded.Wordpress.com and is a regular columnist for the online resource Visual Thesaurus.
Also mentioned in the podcast: my new card game, Peeve Wars.