The Bunny Ears Prank: A History

Status: Classic prank
Making 'Bunny Ears' behind someone's head has to be the most ubiquitous prank of all time. 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. (A few of them I could only find in thumbnail size.) They are, from the top left: 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.

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If any of you have interesting bunny-ear photos, email them to me. If I get enough good ones, I might consider adding a gallery of bunny-ear photos to the museum.

Posted on Mon Jul 10, 2006


Actually, if memory serves, the original gesture was to mean or imply that someone's spouse was cheating on them. Probably predates the photo.

It's evolved into a more 'I'm making this person look silly'.
Posted by Robin Bobcat  on  Mon Jul 10, 2006  at  11:38 PM
>>the original gesture was to mean or imply that someone's spouse was cheating on them<<

So was George H.W. Bush sending a secret message when he bunny-eared Barbara? :lol:
Posted by The Curator  in  San Diego  on  Mon Jul 10, 2006  at  11:44 PM
Winston Churchill did it all the time, however the joke is lost to most people because Hitler is missing in all the foto
Posted by Unfairly Balanced  on  Tue Jul 11, 2006  at  01:04 AM
Yeah, I don't know if it's true but I'd always thought - like Robin Bobcat above - that it came from indicating that someone was wearing the horns. Never even heard them called bunny ears till today...

The cuckold origin may well be a myth, but that article reads like Sauer was just making her story up as she went along, too. Anyone know of any very early references to the gesture? What's the earliest cite for 'bunny ears' to refer to the gesture? Could the 'bunny ears' interpretation possibly postdate the gesture, possibly as ssome kind of bowdlerization thereof? Could it have been influenced by association with bunny girls? Enquiring minds want to know.
Posted by outeast  on  Tue Jul 11, 2006  at  01:48 AM
Wikipedia discusses a similar (but definitely insulting in origin) use of the corna 'devil horns' sign so beloved of black-clad teens who listen to very silly music. There's no evidence offered one way or the other for whether the gestures share a common heritage, however, even though the article mentions the superficial similarity.
Posted by outeast  on  Tue Jul 11, 2006  at  01:59 AM
Nobody EVER gave Gandhi the bunny ears! He would have dropped that "pacifism" crap PRONTO and kicked their candy ass!
Posted by Cranky Media Guy  on  Tue Jul 11, 2006  at  02:03 AM

Under an article for the "V sign"

"In United States culture, it is now probably most frequently seen as a gesture of peace, a connotation that became popular during the peace movement of the 1960s. The gesture is also used in a manner similar to the corna, by serruptitiously holding it behind a person's head. This use of the gesture, often called "bunny ears", is usually regarded as a meaningless prank without the corna's implied cuckoldry"
Posted by Archibold  on  Tue Jul 11, 2006  at  04:59 AM
wow I get to mention them two days in a row- Courtney Love gives Kurt Cobain bunny ears, 1993 MTV Music Video Awards.

Posted by katey  on  Tue Jul 11, 2006  at  06:31 AM
A little photoshopping....

Posted by Bob  on  Tue Jul 11, 2006  at  07:39 AM
If memory serves me correctly the cuckold concept appears quite often in Shakespeares plays. Bunny ears themselves don't but horns do.

(Benedict "Much Ado About Nothing"
"The savage bull may, but if ever the sensible Benedick bear it, pluck off the bull
Posted by TWM  on  Tue Jul 11, 2006  at  07:44 AM
My brother used to just do that, but only as a peace sign in all his pictures...mostly from about 7-10 years old. Every picture...There we stood, smiley & goofy...and Cully has his 2 fingers in that "V"...usually right near his chest. Sometimes high in the air.
Posted by Maegan  on  Tue Jul 11, 2006  at  09:46 AM
I will have to locate and scan in a photo of my youngest son giving his rabbit bunny ears. That was funny.
Posted by Lounge Lizard  on  Tue Jul 11, 2006  at  09:49 AM
Wow, I am impressed with TWM's research. I was going to say that Dan Brown makes a reference to it in the Da Vinci Code. I'm sure he says horns too, although I gave my copy away, so I can't check. Anyway, Shakespeare quotes are much more impressive than Dan Brown quotes.
Posted by Pixie  on  Tue Jul 11, 2006  at  09:53 AM
Ancient Pagan symbol of fertility. Obviously, it wasn't an insult.
Posted by Magnus  on  Tue Jul 11, 2006  at  10:20 AM

Can you be more specific than "Ancient Pagan"? A individual culture maybe?


Thank you but I really didn't do much research I used to act and I played that role so I remembered the line. After that just a little Google and cut and paste.
Posted by TWM  on  Tue Jul 11, 2006  at  12:13 PM
And I was thinking they were donkey-ears (at least, as far as I know, they're never called bunny-ears in dutch areas)
Posted by FrostBird  on  Tue Jul 11, 2006  at  03:40 PM
When I was a kid we always referred to this same gesture (raised first and middle fingers behind somebody's head just as a picture is snapped) as "giving them Devil Horns." Maybe it's a regional thing.
Posted by Big Gary  on  Tue Jul 11, 2006  at  05:53 PM
Pixie sez:
"Shakespeare quotes are much more impressive than Dan Brown quotes."

You ain't just a-woofin' there, cousin!
Posted by Big Gary  on  Tue Jul 11, 2006  at  05:56 PM
it's obvious what is going on here. everything leads to kevin bacon.
Posted by Mike  on  Tue Jul 11, 2006  at  06:02 PM
The donkey ears thing is interesting - puts one in mind of Nick Bottom, and making an ass of someone would certainly be more in the spirit of the prank as now played. However, while reference to Bottom may have (indirectly?) played a role in bunny ears, horns, whatever getting renamed donkey ears, I'd want to see some pretty firm evidence before accepting donkey ears as the origin - especially since it doesn't seem to be the prevalent moniker for the gesture.

References to the cuckold's horns are common in Shakespeare, incidentally - here's Falstaff in the abysmal hack work 'The Merry Wives of Windsor':

"Hang him, mechanical salt-butter rogue! I will stare him out of his wits; I will awe him with my cudgel; it shall hang like a meteor o'er the cuckold's horns."

It's also found in many other old sources in European writing - Moliere, for example, made reference to the horns in both Tartuffe and The School for Wives, I believe. Rabelais, too:

<i>"Tu sera coqu, homme de bien, je t
Posted by outeast  on  Wed Jul 12, 2006  at  02:15 AM
So we know from literature that the bunny ears/cuckold horns/donkey ears/Devil's horns existed long before photography in Europe. What about in other supercultures, anyone recall any reference to it (in any of it's various forms) in either far, mid, or near eastern literature?
Posted by TWM  on  Wed Jul 12, 2006  at  08:02 AM
I know it was common in Sumer, according to what writings they left behind. Other than that, I'm not sure, but I'll look into it.
Posted by Magnus  on  Wed Jul 12, 2006  at  03:35 PM
There is no connection with the gesture shown in the photos, I am sure, but just for interest, in Japan brides wear a headress on their wedding day. When I asked my Japanese friends about this tradition they jokingly said that it is to hide the brides horns from her prospective husband. Her horns (on her forehead) are, I understand, a sign of her angry nature, her potential shrewishness. That is why she would want to hide them on her wedding day, so hubby doesn't know until it is too late.
Posted by Pixie  on  Mon Jul 17, 2006  at  10:05 AM
In Italy it is done with the index and small finger, and this gesture means horns. Either as a luck charm, or as a sign of cuckledom. If you do it behind someone's head, it means the latter. Anyway, it is regarded as childish.

Our former prime minister did it to the prime minister of spain on an official photo.

He wasn't reelected.
Posted by gino  on  Tue Jul 25, 2006  at  04:24 PM
Anyone who's ever seen a picture taken knows about the bunny ears thing. Because of this common knowledge, I've often found that I can actually HELP random people on the street get a better group photo by doing something completely unexpected.

When I see someone pointing a camara at a group of friends and concentrating hard on framing their shot, I casually saunter up BEHIND THE PHOTOGRAPHER and give THEM the bunny ears!

You have to get your timing just so in order to achieve the right effect, but when you do, you find that at the critical moment when the shutterbug clicks off the shot the whole group they're shooting is grinning from ear to ear.

Posted by Trickyelf  on  Fri Feb 16, 2007  at  05:36 PM
My aunt has found two pictures of the bunny ears going back to 1929 taken in Cooke county, Texas.
Posted by heartlandcountry  on  Fri Jun 12, 2009  at  05:59 PM
References to "horns" for a cuckold go back to Petronius in the first century (at least) & I've seen the same "bunny ears" sign we're talking about in a 17th century drawing by Thomas Rowlandsen, I think. Interesting to see how a sign persists while those using it are no longer aware of the original meaning.
Posted by Gibbons in SF  on  Wed Mar 17, 2010  at  10:30 PM
When I was at school(twenty five years ago) we did the bunny ears without the need for a camera and from what I recall there was some sort of time multiplier for the severity of your cuckoldy. We even had a gesture, other than lashing out, to nullify the accusation.
It used to be fun to see how long your victim would go before you were discovered.
Posted by Dodderman  on  Wed Aug 04, 2010  at  07:18 AM
IIRC it was first used in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Bugs tied his own ears under his chin and did the Rabbit-Ears gesture to Daffy Duck, to trick the Abominable Snowman into thinking that Daffy not Bugs was the actual rabbit.
Posted by Alex Sumner  on  Sat Apr 07, 2012  at  12:38 PM
I just watched a program about WWII and it had a photo taken around 1945 with a person doing bunny ears
Posted by Peter B  on  Wed Sep 25, 2013  at  12:52 AM
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