Why Saskatchewan calls a hooded sweatshirt a ‘bunny hug’
Across this great nation of ours, there are approximately 30-million speakers of Canadian English. Typically, when we think of Canadian English, we identify it by what it is not: American English (and sometimes British English). However, right here at home, within our 9,984,670 km2 of space, there is a massive assortment of words we use to describe the same thing, and even when we agree on a single term, the pronunciations we employ are sometimes completely different.
So much so, that it begs the question: What do the words you use say about where you’re from? This week, we’ll try to answer that question by talking to linguistic experts, sharing stories of our own discovery of differences in the language Canadians use and exploring the regional dialects that define us all.
We’re also looking for your feedback on specific terms in your community: Tell us a word that only seems to be used by people in your region here.
A Saskatchewan shopper walks into an Alberta clothing store and asks the clerk: “Do you have any bunny hugs for sale?”
Not exactly a riddle, but the question certainly leaves employee after employee in the prominent Calgary shopping mall dazed and confused.
“I’ll be right back,” says one clerk at a store that we’ll call New Army.
Waiting. Waiting. He returns for clarification and with his own question. “A bunny heart?”
Presumably that means no.
“Ummm …. ” replies an employee at, let’s call it, United States Hawk.
Next up: (Rhymes With) Snap.
“Like, a sweatshirt?” comes the reply.
Next: (Rhymes With) Schmoots.
“Er, no. We don’t have any bunny hugs.”
The hesitation in the salesperson’s voice is like that of someone who just says no to avoid acknowledging they don’t know the answer.
So the inquiring shopper tries a different tact: Do you sell any pullover sweatshirts with hoods?
“Oh. Yeah,” replies the clerk, who then describes a bevy of styles, shapes and colours of bunny hugs available for purchase.
Go virtually anywhere on planet earth, even one of the biggest malls in the city that draws thousands of Saskatchewan ex-pats annually, the reaction is the same.
Question: Do you sell any bunny hugs?
Answer: “What’s that?”
Anywhere, that is, except Saskatchewan.
Take a sweatshirt. Add a hood. Stitch in some front pockets near the bellybutton. Done. A bunny hug. Everyone from the province knows that.
But where did the term come from? And why is it used seemingly exclusively in Saskatchewan, when elsewhere the same item of clothing is almost always referred to as a hoodie?
Among the theories:
A century ago, there was a bunny overpopulation in Saskatchewan, and residents turned the pelts of Peter Rabbit’s great-great-great-grandparents into a wrap that loosely resembles what is known today as a bunny hug.
Back in the 16th century, muffs were designed and lined with fur — often from a bunny or rabbit — and each end was left open to allow both hands to be tucked in at the front of the waist. A few hundred years later, the accessory came in handy during Saskatchewan winters in the first half of the 20th century. Starting late in the 20th century, muffs’ distant relative has been seen on football fields across North America. (Watch what’s wrapped around the waist of your favourite team’s quarterback the next time a game is played in -20 C weather.)
The name is rooted to a dance. The Bunny Hug was a scandalous, grinding, hip-holding dance from the early 1900s popularized in Barbary Coast halls. (Other dances around the time included the turkey trot, the buzzard lope and the grizzly bear. Apparently dance moves could only be named after animals. Dancers back then would be disappointed today with the Floss or the Stanky Leg.) But the Bunny Hug is not to be confused with the Bunny Hop, the latter of which is similar to a conga line where the dancers squeeze the waist of the person in front of them, right where the pouch of a bunny hug is located. The connection between the dance and the bunny hug we know today has a great deal of merit, according to Tyler Cottenie, a University of Saskatchewan linguistics major who was interviewed for a story in the StarPhoenix back in 2007.
As for the regionalization of the term, Cottenie discovered the hooded sweatshirt first appeared in the 1959-60 fall-winter Eaton’s catalogue as a children’s fleece-lined hooded sweater, minus a front pouch. The pouch appeared the following year, and by 1964, the sweatshirts were sold for men, girls and boys. A similar garment didn’t appear in the Sears catalogue until 1976, right around the time Cottenie discovered images in U of S and Saskatoon high school yearbooks of students wearing bunny hugs.
According to his research, references to sweaters and the modern-day bunny hug appeared as early as the 1960s. The phrase may have originated around Prince Albert and Melfort in the north-central part of Saskatchewan and the Yorkton area in the southeast. By the 1970s, residents all across Saskatchewan were wearing — or at least knew of — the bunny hug.
Some kids from that era are now using their public fame to ensure the bunny hug remains a distinct part of the provincial lexicon. “Needs a hood to be a bunny-hug. Pretty sure it’s a law,” wrote former premier Brad Wall on Twitter earlier this year during a tweet exchange over the name and its characteristics.
Responded Saskatchewan’s minister of justice Don Morgan, tongue also firmly planted in cheek: “And if it isn’t a law we should ask the Justice Minister to make it a law.”