cat, rabbit, hare

Happy New Year! It is The Year of the Rabbit (or hare) in Chinese calendar and The Year of the Cat in Vietnamese calendar. In spite of their zoological differences, cat and rabbit appear to be linguistically interchangeable. As Arkady Raikin used to say,

Чтобы приготовить рагу из зайца, надо, как минимум, иметь кошку.
(To cook a hare stew, one needs at least a cat.)

For instance, levantar la liebre is the Spanish equivalent of “letting cat out out of the bag”. On the other hand, dar gato por liebre means “to con” or “to trick”; presumably hare being more valuable than a cat. Poser un lapin is French for another kind of trick: standing somebody up.

In English, the word “cat” on its own has other meanings than “a common house pet”. Cab Calloway sang in A Bee Gezint:

I’m the cat that’s in the know.

Here “cat” probably just stands for “guy”, but in swing era jazzmen were known as “cats”.

In Russian, заяц (hare) is an informal term for a person who travels on public transport without a ticket. In British English, to rabbit also means “to chatter”. Where is that coming from?


In many languages, both cat and rabbit have strong sexual connotations. Wikipedia says that

rabbits are often used as symbols of playful sexuality, which also relates to the human perception of innocence, as well as its reputation as a prolific breeder.

Hence French chaud lapin “hot bunny”; Italian gatta, “sex kitten”; Spanish conejo and English pussy. In Russian минет, the imported French word minette lost all feline connection and retained only one meaning (oral sex).

In English, all animals are referred to as “it” irrespectively of their sex. In other languages, for example in French and Russian, the grammatical gender corresponds to the biological one. Rather confusingly, in German der Hase (masculine) stands for either male or female hare, das Kaninchen (neuter) is either male or female rabbit, while die Katze (feminine) stands for cat of either sex, although there is a (masculine) word, der Kater, for tomcat.

English cat rabbit hare
tomcat she-cat buck doe buck doe
Dutch kat konijn haas
kater poes rammelaar voedster ram moer
French chat chatte lapin lapine lièvre hase
German Kater Katze Kaninchen Hase
Italian gatto gatta coniglio coniglia leprotto lepre
Portuguese gato gata coelho coelha lebrão lebre
Russian кот кошка кролик крольчиха заяц зайчиха
Spanish gato gata conejo coneja el liebre la liebre
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