bunny ears

It started with a candid photo of people at a social gathering, with one person making a V hand gesture behind the head of the person next to them, much as in this photo of pro tennis players:

(#1) Swiss jock jokery:  Stan Wawrinka doing the ‘bunny ears’ gesture behind Roger Federer

Bunny-earing someone is a prank (NOAD on the noun prank: ‘a practical joke or mischievous act’), pranks being a very culture-specific form of play + humor that deserve analytic attention that I’m not able to provide, but will just take as a cultural given here.

To come: a bit of the history of bunny-earing; senses of the expression bunny ears (illustrating (mostly metaphorical) sense developments in many directions); and uses of the V hand gesture (illustrating symbolic functions of many different kinds; the gesture itself is “just stuff”, without intrinsic meaning, which can be exploited for many different symbolic purposes). The act, the meanings of the linguistic expression for the act, the cultural significances (or “social meanings”) of the act.

The prank. From The Museum of Hoaxes site, “The Bunny Ears Prank: A History” by Alex Boese on 7/10/06:

Making ‘Bunny Ears’ behind someone’s head has to be the most ubiquitous prank of all time [well, of all time  in a very particular cultural world]. I can’t think of anything that would rival it. In fact, it’s so pervasive, so taken-for-granted, that I had never given it a second thought until I read this article by Rachel Sauer in which she attempts to trace a brief history of the bunny-ears prank. She writes:

Way back in the early history of photography, back when people had metal rods strapped to their backs and clamped to their necks so they could sit still for the 30 minutes required for exposure, there were no bunny ears. In fact, in those portraits, there were no smiles. It was a very severe time, as though everyone had just received terrible news… It is impossible to pinpoint exactly when bunny ears first showed up in photographs behind someone’s head, though it started happening often in the ’50s. And, oh, to know why they did. … Why a rabbit? Why not a Statue of Liberty crown with all five fingers? Why not a single antenna? Why not devil horns, with the index finger and pinkie?

So she assumes that the prank only came into existence when people started to pose for photographs. Which makes sense, I guess. Nowadays it’s rare for someone to make bunny ears except when a photo is being taken. Though maybe, back in the middle ages, making bunny ears during formal occasions (perhaps as the priest was saying mass) was a popular jest. Who knows? Obviously this is a subject crying out for further research.

Sauer also points out that the more formal the occasion, the funnier bunny ears become:

It’s funny when George H.W. Bush makes bunny ears on his wife, Barbara. It would be knee-slapping if someone did bunny ears on the pope, say, or Osama bin Laden. Incongruity makes them funny. But then, it’s not so funny when your idiot roommate ruins every picture.

Since I evidently have nothing better to do, I spent half-an-hour finding interesting bunny-ear photos on the web. Here’s what I came up with …: George H.W. Bush giving his wife bunny ears (from Sauer’s article); Muhammad Ali giving them to Billy Crystal; George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg; A British schoolboy gives Charles Clarke, the UK’s education secretary, bunny ears during his official visit to the school (this photo caused a bit of controversy as it soon appeared in many British papers, amid allegations that the photographer had egged on the boy to do it); Crosy Stills and Nash giving each other bunny ears; George Lucas earing a stormtrooper; Gloria Steinem bunny-earing herself… a reference to her past as a Playboy bunny, I assume; a nurse bunny-earing a skeleton; Ted Case of AOL giving Ted Turner some ears; Paul Newman being eared by his wife, Joanne Woodward; and finally, Kyra Sedgwick and Kevin Bacon.

The compound noun bunny ears. First, from NOAD:

noun bunny ears: 1 [a] a pair of artificial rabbit ears attached to a headband, typically worn as part of a costume: the nurses were decked out in bunny ears for Easter. [b] a hand gesture in which the middle and index fingers are held in a V-shape behind someone’s head so as to resemble the ears of a rabbit, typically as a prank while a photograph is being taken: family photos that showed his son giving his grandma bunny ears. 2 another term for rabbit ears (sense 1): we had one TV with a UHF and VHF knob and bunny ears.

And then an overlapping list of bunny ears disambiguations from Wikipedia:

double figure-eight loop, a multi-loop knot; Opuntia microdasys, a species of cactus (aka rabbit ears); set-top tv antenna, a common dipole antenna (aka rabbit ears); V sign, a hand gesture behind another person’s head giving the impression of “ears” or “horns”

The basis for these senses: the ears of actual bunnies:


Then, in addition to the V-sign prank:

a costume element, simulacra of bunny ears. In their most innocent manifestation, as playful accessories for children, especially for Easter:

(#3) In natural rabbit colors (gray and white), plus of course pink for cuteness

But also in an adult female manifestation, worn by Playboy-style bunnies as part of a sex-drenched costume that combines allusions to female sex workers and famously amatory rabbits:

(#4) Model Kate Moss in a bunny costume

the TV antenna, metaphorical bunny/rabbit ears:


the knot, metaphorical bunny ears:

(#6) Bunny ears: a double figure-eight loop

the cactus, more metaphorical bunny/rabbit ears:

   (#7) Opuntia microdasys, or bunny/rabbit ears, in its green variant; there are also gray (called “white”) and yellow variants

See my 3/1/17 posting “Two notable plants”, one of which is a fancy variant of O. microdasys.

The V gesture. Made with the first two fingers, symbolizing any of a number of thngs. (In what follows, I omit the V sign as used in various manual sign languages; such gestures are expressions in a natural language, with conventional meanings (most prominently, ‘2’).)

The Wikipedia entry on the V sign begins by distinguishing uses of the gesture according to how the hand is positioned: with the palm facing the signer (and the back of the hand facing the observer); with the back of the hand facing the signer (and the palm of the hand facing the observer); or with the hand in motion.

The gesture is just stuff, with no intrinsic signification on its own — though extended fingers might lend themselves easily to certain understandings. A few of these.

the forks, conveying insult by anal assault, along the lines of the verbal insults Up yours! and Fuck you! Roughly, a two-fingered variant of “the finger” or the fig sign, which is also performed with the back of the hand towards the observer. (In general, displaying the back of the hand conveys rejection, while displaying the palm of the hand conveys acceptance, welcoming.)

From the Wikipedia entry:

   (#8) The V sign (“the forks”) as an insulting gesture, including an upwards swing at the elbow

The V sign is a hand gesture in which the index and middle fingers are raised and parted, while the other fingers are clenched. It has various meanings, depending on the cultural context and how it is presented.

When displayed with the palm inward towards the signer, it has long been an offensive gesture in some Commonwealth nations [the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa].

the victory sign, the peace sign. More from Wikipediia:

   (#8) The Churchillian V for victory

In the 1940s, during the Second World War, a campaign by the Western Allies to use the sign with the back of the hand towards the signer [and the palm facing out] as a “V for Victory” sign proved quite effective. During the Vietnam War, in the 1960s, the “V sign” [with palm facing out] was widely adopted by the counterculture as a symbol of peace.

In more detail:

[V for victory] was first popularised in January 1941 by Victor de Laveleye, a Belgian politician in exile, who suggested it as a symbol of unity in a radio speech and the subsequent “V for Victory” campaign by the BBC. It is sometimes made using both hands with upraised arms as United States President Dwight Eisenhower, and in imitation of him, Richard Nixon, used to do.

[The V sign was] used around the world by peace and counter-culture groups; popularized in the American peace movement of the 1960s. The commonality with the symbol’s use from the 1940s was its meaning the “end of war”.

air quotes. A kinetic sign, mimicking printed quotes in the air: arms raised at the elbows, Vs on both hands, palms out, flexing the two fingers. “Often used to express satire, sarcasm, irony or euphemism, among others, and are analogous to scare quotes in print” (Wikipedia link). You can watch the characters Ross and Joey air-quoting on Friends here.

bunny-earing. Back to V symbolizing the ears of a rabbit, in the prank described above

ass-earing. When I was a child, bunny-earing was becoming a thing, but there was considerable disagreement among the local kids as to the symbolism of the V gesture. Quite commonly, it was understood to symbolize donkey ears, thus playfully conveying that the target of the gesture was an ass. An actual donkey, with the large ears of its kind:


So the pranking V sign was often referred to as ass’s / asses’ (now frequently spelled as ass’ or asses) ears.

This interpretation might have been influenced by the story of Midas and his asses’ ears. (What do the rushes say? / Midas has asses’ ears.)

From Wikipedia:

   (#10) Left to right in an engraving: Pan, Midas, Apollo. Midas Judges Pan better than Apollo and his ears are turned to asses’ ears

Once, Pan had the audacity to compare his music with that of Apollo, and challenged Apollo to a trial of skill. Tmolus, the mountain-god, was chosen as umpire. Pan blew on his pipes and, with his rustic melody, gave great satisfaction to himself and his faithful follower, Midas, who happened to be present. Then Apollo struck the strings of his lyre. Tmolus at once awarded the victory to Apollo, and all but one agreed with the judgment. Midas dissented, and questioned the justice of the award. Apollo would not suffer such a depraved pair of ears any longer, and said “Must have ears of an ass!”, which caused Midas’s ears to become those of a donkey. … Midas was mortified at this mishap. He attempted to hide his misfortune under an ample turban or headdress, but his barber of course knew the secret, so was told not to mention it. However, the barber could not keep the secret; he went out into the meadow, dug a hole in the ground, whispered the story into it, then covered the hole up. A thick bed of reeds later sprang up in the meadow, and began whispering the story, saying “King Midas has an ass’ ears”.

devil-horning. A competing interpretation of the pranking V sign in my child cohort was as devil’s horns. From Wikipedia:

   (#11) Three variants of the horn sign

The sign of the horns is a hand gesture with a variety of meanings and uses in various cultures [though associations with the devil are widespread, and strong in the Mediterranean culture region — reaching the U.S. primarily through southern Italy]. It is formed by extending the index and little fingers while holding the middle and ring fingers down with the thumb.

The many complexities of the horn sign are beside the point here. What’s relevant is that the simpler V sign can substitute for it, giving us yet another signification for the pranking V sign.

Jew-horning. But, as they say, wait, there’s more. At least a few kids in my childhood cohort associated the pranking V sign with an attribution — quite unfavorable — of Jewishness. (The working-class neighborhood of my childhood was closed by covenant to Jews and blacks, but had plenty of Italians, who were served by a local system of parochial schools. Feelings against Jews tended to be high — because, you know, “they killed our Christ”.)

What’s the connection of the V sign to Jews? Well, first, the V sign to the devil and his horns; and then, the devil and his horns to the Jews, thanks to a bizarre history going back about a millennium. Fortunately for me, this tangled story is beside the point; what matters is the beliefs that arose out of it. From the Wikipedia entry on Stereotypes ofJews:

The portrayal of Jews as historic enemies of Christianity and Christendom constitutes the most damaging anti-Jewish stereotype reflected in the literature of the late tenth through early twelfth centuries. Jews were often depicted as satanic consorts, or as devils themselves and “incarnation[s] of absolute evil.” Physically, Jews were portrayed as menacing, hirsute, with boils, warts and other deformities, and sometimes with horns, cloven hoofs and tails.

Not just ancient history. These ideas filtered down into an enduring body of folk beliefs, including the idea that Jews have stubs of horns on their foreheads. The story is still current in the rural and small-town American South (where, of course, actual Jews are rare as ostriches). And crops up in anti-Semitic hate literature, as here:

   (#12) From The Ugly Truth site – “Intelligent ‘anti-Semitism’ for thinking Gentiles”


Bonus: Jews fight back. So there’s this really stupid, hateful idea. What can a Jew do? Fight back defiantly — with humor, wherever possible. Here’s the response of the klezmer band The Klezmatics (highly recommended, by the way), in an album:

   (#13) Jew blowing a shofar (a ritual ram’s-horn trumpet); inset, Jew sporting frontal horns

The band’s instruments include a horn, a modern trumpet. Plus saxophone, clarinet, kaval, keyboards, bass, cimbalon, accordion, piano, violin, and drums.

As for defiant humor, queerfolk bow to no one in this domain. Just from the guys, we’ve got bands named Pansy Division, Limp Wrist, Butthole Surfers, The Fag Machine, Pink Fairies, and more.


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