March 29, 2008

"I Hate White Rabbits"

Stupid Question ™
Jan. 16, 2005
By John Ruch
© 2005

Q: What is the origin of saying, “I hate white rabbits” to ward off offending campfire smoke? I remember hearing this as a kid at summer camp.
—Matthew S. Schweitzer, Columbus, Ohio

A: You know, I’ve done a lot of goofy things in the name of “Stupid Question,” but this may top them all. “I hate white rabbits” is reputedly effective against tobacco smoke as well. So today I sat in a public park, lit up a big cigar, and held it up so the smoke blew in my face as I repeated the magic phrase.

It “worked”—the first time. But not on retries. And never when I positioned the cigar firmly between me and the prevailing wind. Meanwhile, by observing the cigar against a black backdrop, I could see the smoke changed direction regularly even without my magical influence. Wind changes frequently at ground level, and the heat of combustion generates its own currents as well.

So, unsurprisingly, this appears to be just a silly thing to say as a way of passing the time until the smoke shifts again. That’s right, smoke doesn’t understand English.

But then, do we? Why this particular phrase?

Research on this one is almost nonexistent. All I could find was a tiny sample of Internet reports too small to draw any significant conclusions. Most even lacked a clear geographical base; the identifiable ones were from the Midwest and Canada.

However, there is general agreement that the phrase is, “I hate white rabbits” (or just “White rabbit” two cases) and that it makes smoke blow away from the speaker. A couple reports mentioned learning it as a child. All reports seem to involve people no more than about 40 years old, though the Internet self-samples for such folks.

I did find one brief report that seems to suggest “white rabbit” is a phrase said when the campfire blows away from the speaker—marking the change rather than causing it. However, the report may just be poorly written.

Perhaps the phrase is deliberate nonsense, just the sort of thing to keep kids entertained around a campfire. Maybe there’s a dash of functionalism, the idea that just saying something will produce enough exhalation to push the smoke away.

I’ll note for the record that Jefferson Airplane’s 1967 hit song “White Rabbit,” an ode to drug use, includes mention of a “hookah-smoking caterpillar.” I can almost imagine anti-drug camp counselors of the 1970s teaching kids to say, “I hate white rabbits!” Almost.

Of course, rabbits figure in a variety of customs and bits of folklore, usually attributed to fertility symbolism (with “white” typically symbolizing magical beneficence). Think of the lucky rabbit’s foot. Which brings us to our most intriguing possibility.

There’s a British custom going back at least to 1920 of repeating either “white rabbit” or just “rabbit,” typically three times, on the first day of the month, or at the very least on New Year’s Day.

Remember that British-influenced Canada is one location for our campfire phrase—there’s a possible connection between the two there.

In some reports both new and old, the British phrase is part of a game with friends or family to see who remembers to say it first. Similar games of social tag, with equally nonsensical names and phrases (“Buffalo” is one I just read about) were common fads around 1900.

Nobody knows what the British charm-phrase means, either. But is not hard to imagine it being adapted for around-the-campfire use, especially in the form of a game in which it is said when the smoke changes direction, or something along those lines. Its transformation into an anti-smoke charm would not be surprising and would explain the addition of the negative, “I hate…” prefix.

But until someone conducts wide-ranging field studies on this phrase, we’re really just blowing smoke.

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