Rabbit rabbit

Emphatically not a rodent; possibly Herb Alpert’s true muse.

Nick Lloyd writes:

When the Phoenicians first ventured westwards in search of trade some 2500 years ago, they came across a land inhabited by tribes which the Greeks would later call the Iberians (after the river Iberus- the Ebro). They also saw (and no doubt roasted) some strange floppy-eared animals which appeared in great numbers everywhere. So they called the land i-shepan-im, or the land or coast of rabbits or to be more precise from the Phoenician for hyrax, the animal they knew from their North African home and confused with the rabbit. To the Romans, it became Hispania, and under Hadrian, they even struck a coin in Spain bearing the image of a rabbit.

If this is true then it suggests that if the Romans had got here first Spain would be called something like Cuniculandia, and that Phoenician Mexico (Nueva España) might eventually have become known as New Rabbit, which would have been handy for Hispanic threat propagandists like Samuel Huntingdon. However, here is what the Catholic Encyclopaedia tells us:

The etymology of the name Spain (España) is uncertain. Some derive it from the Punic word tsepan, “rabbit”, basing the opinion on the evidence of a coin of Galba, on which Spain is represented with a rabbit at her feet, and on Strabo, who calls Spain “the land of rabbits”. It is said that the Phoenicians and Carthaginians found the country overrun with these rodents, and so named it after them. Another derivation is from sphan, “north”, from the circumstance that the country was north of Carthage, just as the Greeks called Italy Hesperia, because it was their western boundary, or the land of sunset (Hespera). Again, some Bascophiles would assert a Basque origin for the name of Spain: Españia, “Land of the Shoulder”, because it formed the western shoulder of ancient Europe. Padre Larramendi has remarked that, in the Basque language, ezpaña means “tongue”, “lip”, or “extremity”, and might thus have been applied to the extreme southwestern region of Europe.

Our faith in the boys from the Bronx should not, perhaps, be boundless, since rabbits are lagomorphs, not rodents. I also wonder whether Cissy Wechter’s lyrics for Spanish Flea shouldn’t have made clearer that she was referring not to any old flea but to the Iberian rabbit flea, Caenopsylla laptevi ibera, which appears to be not under the slightest threat, the entire east coast population having hippity-hopped onto the cat in recent days.

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  1. Another etymology of “Spain”
    Re Cuniculandia, the Wikipedia Phoenicia article currently says that “the name Spain comes from the Phoenician word Sapan, which means ‘that which is hidden’.”

  2. The truth is that bunnies always knew in the darkest moments of Eternity that their predicament–the ugly ducklings of the rodent world–was temporary, and that one day they would be able to get into all the cool bars and shag themselves rotten on Sundays. Ah, to be a bunny (or, better, a cockroach)!

  3. I ‘ve heard that the name of Spain (España)is Greek and it means “the land of Pan”. can this be the case?

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