The answer to the question in the title is that the correct name is Welsh Rabbit. I know you may have been told that is is supposed to be “rarebit” and rabbit is incorrect and has nothing to do with the dish, but this bit of culinary wisdom is not so wise. Yes, Welsh Rabbit has no rabbit in it, but it does have something to do with rabbits. In fact, it is more difficult to tell where the Rarebit version comes from than the Rabbit version, but Rabbit was definitely the historical original.
Welsh Rabbit is one of the humblest dishes you can imagine and it is weird that people should feel it so important to argue about the lack of rabbit, even though they can’t tell you what the heck a rarebit is supposed to be. Maybe a rare bit of albino squirrel? You could charge more for that so I can see the motivation.
The dish is simply some toasted bread with melted cheese on it, which is topped with mustard or spice. Other things are sometimes added to the top, like beer, pickles, apple slices, broccoli, etc. It never had rabbit as an ingredient, so the idea that the name Welsh Rabbit was a corruption of the correct name, Welsh Rarebit, has been around for a very long time, since at least early 1900’s, in fact. Dictionaries of the time would often list two entries, for both the rabbit and rarebit versions.
According to many sources, what actually happened is that the name Welsh Rabbit came about as an ethnic slur against the Welsh by the English, the idea being that the impoverished and uncouth Welsh had to eat this melted cheese on toast instead of the rabbit they couldn’t afford. Therefore it was, supposedly, due to the English condescension towards their Welsh neighbors, who, even though rabbits ran wild in Britain, couldn’t manage to put one on their table. Also, there may have been another connotation: that the Welsh, in their uncivilized state, thought the dish was fine dining, as good as eating rabbit, which, if you get it, means that they didn’t even know what fine dining was, let alone would they be able to afford it.
The rarebit version of the name is sometimes said to have been invented by the Welsh to elevate the dish and remove the slur, by hinting at a rare bit of something fine. It’s possible, as well, that the English invented the name to erase the earlier insult, after attitudes changed. Others say that restaurants changed the name so they could serve it on fancy dishes and charge more for it. More likely, however, etymologists, who are sometimes prone to fancy, couldn’t figure out how the heck rabbit got in there and so imagined that it was a misunderstanding of the name.
Regardless of the origin of rarebit, written evidence clearly demonstrates that the original name of the dish was Welsh Rabbit. Many written works by etymologists, and dictionaries of the 1800’s and beyond claim that the rabbit version was a vulgar derivation of the “proper” rarebit, without any proof whatsoever. Although it is near impossible to trace the earliest written mentions of the dish, Welsh rabbit is recorded as early as 1725, whereas Welsh rarebit doesn’t appear until much later in the century, perhaps 1785 or thereabouts. Walter William Skeat, however, in his Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, written in the latter 1800’s, has this to say about the dish:
Welsh-rabbit, a Welsh dainty 1, i.e. not a rabbit, but toasted cheese; this is a mild joke, just as Norfolk-capon is not a capon at all, but a red-herring (Halliwell). Those who cannot see the joke pretend that rabbit is a corruption of rare bit, which is as pointless and stupid as it is incapable of proof. 2
Other Possible Origins of the Welsh Rabbit Name
The common explanations have been given here, but that does not mean that others are not possible. For example, it may not have been an ethnic slur, but simply a reflection of the ubiquitous nature and popularity of the dish. For example, a small 1849 book titled A Lift for the Lazy gives a different version of the name’s origin. The book was written by Henry Wharton Griffith and published by George Putnam, and was more or less an early example of a collection of trivia:
Welsh Rabbit is not, as many persons suppose, a corruption of Welsh rare-bit: toasted cheese is a favorite dish in Wales, and universal, almost to nationality: it receives its name on the same principle that sturgeons are called “Albany beef,” from the abundant display of that fish in the Albany market. Sherris sack is called “Bristol milk,” according to Ray, “because it is the entertainment of course, which the Bristolians present to strangers when first visiting their city.” Watches were originally called “Nuremburgh eggs,” they having been invented in that place, and at first were of an oval shape; and in Brady’s Varieties of Literature, we find that the term “Scotch warming-pan” arose form the well-known story of a gentleman traveling in Scotland, who desiring to have his bed warmed, the servant-maid immediately undressed herself and lay down in it for a while. The French translator of one of Scott’s novels, renders “a Welsh-rabbit” literally as “un lapin du pays de Galles,” or, a rabbit of Wales, and then tells his readers in a note, that the lapins or rabbits of Wales have a very superior flavor, which causes them to be of great request in England. 3
Although it is hard to know what to take from this passage, the author seems to be saying that the toasted cheese dish was called rabbit because it was as well-liked and widespread as the region’s rabbits, and thus sought-after. Many other written sources indicate that this kind of naming was a common type of slang: “A common dish or product that any place or people had a special reputation for would be called by the name of some more dainty article of food which it is supposed humorously to supersede or equal.” Other examples are plentiful, including German-Duck, Cobbler’s-Lobster, Norfolk-Capon, Billingsgate-Pheasant, etc. 4
In etymology, we often find that even accomplished scholars expect the origins of the words we use to be literal in some way. When a dish that has no rabbit in it is called rabbit, there must be some mistake or corruption of the earlier name. This is often wishful thinking, and when no proof can be found to back up the desire for neat and tidy origins, fanciful inventions are substituted. This seems to be what happened with Welsh Rabbit and Welsh Rarebit.
- A ‘dainty’ was a word used for any pleasing, tasty dish that was considered a delicacy.
- Skeat, Walter W. An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford: At the Clarendon, 1898.
- Griffith, Henry W. A Lift For The Lazy. New York: George P. Putnam, 1849.
- Henley, William E., and William Farmer, comps. Slang and Its Analogues past and Present: A Dictionary Historical And Comparative of the Heterodox Speech of All Classes of Society For More Than Three Hundred Years. Vol. 7. N.p.: n.p., n.d.