Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Episode 184: The Rabbit Died Show Notes

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Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast

Episode 184: The Rabbit Died

Record Date: March 5, 2023

Air Date: March 8, 2023



Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase. 

I’m Shauna Harrison


And I’m Dan Pugh

Each week we take an idiom or other turn of phrase and try to tell the story from its entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.

Opening Hook

I’ll begin with a paragraph from an article on dated June 22, 2000, written by its founder, David Mikkelson. 


In the movies and television, a positive result was usually revealed by having a character burst into a scene and announce dramatically, "The rabbit died!" (This phrase was either shouted excitedly or whispered in a hushed tone, depending upon whether or not a positive result was the one the woman desired.) But why a rabbit? And why did it die if the woman was pregnant?

End Quote

Well that is what I intend to answer today.


I was recently at the eye doctor and heard a socially inept woman loudly telling the billing staff how they used to do pregnancy tests by injecting women’s urine into rabbits. And if the rabbit died, it meant you were pregnant. And I was like… there is no way that is true.

I don’t usually go around fact-checking loud people in public, but I was curious about the testing procedures. And while I was sitting there, I found several references to “the rabbit died” being an allusion to pregnancy. And that convinced me this phrase deserved some deeper dives.

Shauna, have you ever heard this phrase?

Here’s the definition from Farlex Dictionary of Idioms:


The woman to whom we are referring is pregnant; the pregnancy test was positive

End Quote

Let’s start with pregnancy tests.

First up, from the California and Western Medicine, Volume 32, March, 1930, I found an article by Herbert M. Evans, M.D. and Miriam E. Simpson, M.D. titled “Aschheim-Zondek Test for Pregnancy - Its Present Status”. It opens with:


TN 1926 Bernard Zondek… discovered that the implantation of small bits of the anterior lobe of the hypophysis would provoke sexual maturity in immature animals. When the animals are taken on the day of weaning, these remarkable changes can be produced within four days. A simple chain of reasoning led S. Aschheim, an associate of Zondek, to discover that the same chemical substance which in hypophyseal implants so rapidly matures animals is unusually abundant in the body fluids (blood and

urine) during pregnancy… 

It was therefore natural to inquire whether the new hypophyseal hormone was not also similarly abundant in pregnancy. Their positive findings were quickly extended by the Berlin investigators and now constitute perhaps the most reliable known test for pregnancy and the only reliable early test.

End Quote


The hormone they reference is called human chorionic gonadotropin, which is the last time this episode I say it. I’ll use the shorthand in the future, hCG. According to the article, this resulting test, known as the A-Z test after Selmar Aschheim and Bernhard Zondek, led to mice being used to determine pregnancy. A woman’s urine was sent to a lab, then it would be injected into 5 mice. After about 100 hours, the mice would be euthanized and a necropsy would be performed and any changes to the ovaries would be noted. You’ll notice the mice were killed before doctors knew the result. As far as accuracy goes, I’ll read from a little later in that same article:


In almost no cases did the error exceed two per cent; in fact the majority of workers have found the error to lie between one and two per cent.

End Quote 

A 2021 article by Gillian Brockell published in the Washington Post picks up the story:


Not long after they developed the “AZ test,” their research ended abruptly when the men, both Jewish, were forced to flee Nazi Germany. By then, American doctor Maurice Friedman had adapted the test in the United States using a rabbit.

End Quote 

Which brings us to the Rabbit Test. Sometimes known as the Friedman test, this used the same process as the A-Z test, but used rabbits instead of mice. This appears to have started in the early 1930s. I found a reference to it in the New England Journal of Medicine, Volume 206 from 1932. I know there are tons of circular citations talking about 1949 as the first attestation, but we can ignore them as not relevant. So again, here is this one from a respected medical journal in 1932. 


End Quote Page 181

This indicates both tests were being used simultaneously. How accurate is the rabbit test? 

Here is a quote from an article called Animals in Medicine by Mary L. Burke out of Hygeia, the Health Magazine. This is the June 1946 edition published by the American Medical Association. (Page 466)


End Quote

In Friedmans’s obituary in the New York Times from March 10, 1991, he is quoted as saying:


Asked to comment on the efficiency of his test, Dr. Friedman would say: "It's highly reliable. The only more reliable test is to wait nine months."

End Quote 

It seems both the A-Z test and the Rabbit test were highly reliable. But there is a problem for our quote. The rabbit dies whether you were pregnant or not. 

Which will bring me back to our opening source, from the year 2000:


Thus the "rabbit test" was born, and with it the misconception that the rabbit's death was an indicator of a positive result. In those early tests, the rabbit always died, because the animal had to be killed so its ovaries could be removed and examined. Later refinements to the test enabled clinicians to inspect the ovaries without having to kill the rabbits first, but…  the misconception that the test rabbit died only if the woman was pregnant is still with us today, even though the "rabbit test" itself is not.

Modern pregnancy tests are still based on measuring the amount of hCG present in urine, but they do so directly, without the need of an animal intermediary to serve as a test subject.

End Quote

Since this phrase, The Rabbit Died, seems to be an invention of the last half of the 1900s, we’ll head to the modern usages early so we can get into all the fun ways it was used in a 30 year span before starting to fizzle out.  

But first, we’ve got some awesome people to thank!

A Quick Thank You

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Modern Uses

1954 magazine

The first time I could find the phrase used was in the June 1954 magazine, Theatre Arts Monthly, volume 38, Issue 6. 


Brooks Atkinson (New York Times) goofed in his notice on another comedy, Anniversary Waltz. In this Mama Love Papa cartoon, a third-act reconciliation between husband Madonald Carey and wife Kitty Carlisle occurs when she is told by phone that the rabbit died - that, indeed, a medical test has shown she is going to become a mother again.

End Quote

Now I’m certain this isn’t the first time it was used. It was just the first time I found it in an archived format. But we know for sure the phrase was around by 1954. 

1962 TV Show

Next up is a TV show, a 1962 episode of the Dick Van Dyke show. In season 2, episode 7, we see some flashback scenes to before Ritchie (the son) was born and Laura telling Rob she is pregnant by exclaiming, “The Rabbit Died!” 

I used to adore that show. I still find Dick Van Dyke to be a hilarious person and talented actor and I might have had a crush on Mary Tyler Moore, even though I was watching the reruns of the show some 25 years after they originally aired.

1972 TV Show

A decade later, we have another TV show, this one a 1972 episode of Maude. Bea Arthur, who you may also know as Dorothy on the Golden Girls, plays the title character. In this episode Maude discovers she's pregnant at age 47. Here is a snippet of the conversation between Walter and Maude.


Walter: Maude, we've seen enough movies together. This is the place in the movie where we say we're kidding. You were kidding, right?

Maude: We're not kidding, Walter. The rabbit died.

Walter: I know how he feels!

End Quote

This episode is what the Chicago Tribune called a “watershed moment” because in the end, Maude had an abortion. Here’s an excerpt from the Tribunes’ article by Lewis Beale dated November 13, 1992. 


She was a 47-year-old grandmother with a dilemma: an unexpected pregnancy. It was 1972, the year before Roe vs. Wade made abortion the law of the land.

Even though she lived in New York State, where the procedure was legal, the decision on whether to carry the baby to term wasn’t easy. She thought her husband wanted the child; he thought she did. Then they realized that, at their ages, they didn’t want to raise a second family.

End Quote

It became such a big deal and seems like a gutsy call by the producers. But that wasn’t the case. 

Later in that same article:


''The funny thing is that initially we weren’t even thinking abortion,''

Rod Parker, producer of ''Maude,'' said in an interview. ''The group Zero Population Growth announced they were giving a $10,000 prize for comedies that had something to do with controlling population, so everyone came in with ideas for vasectomies.''

''Maude,'' starring Bea Arthur, was in its first season. It was the latest entry from producer Norman Lear, who had already changed TV with the ground-breaking ''All in the Family.''

With its large, loud protagonist and her messy family life, ''Maude'' was presented as a realistic contrast to the perfection of such TV mothers as Donna Reed and Harriet Nelson. It was also a perfect vehicle to explore the burgeoning feminism of the era.

Population planning seemed to fit perfectly into this scheme. At first, the show was about the pregnancy of Maude`s neighbor Vivian (played by Rue McClanahan), leading into a discussion of contraception and whether Walter, Maude`s husband (played by Bill Macy), would get a vasectomy.

But after reviewing the first draft of the script, Lear said in an interview, he thought ''the wrong woman is funny''-Maude herself would become pregnant. Lear also decided a false pregnancy would be a copout and a miscarriage was out of the question because Gloria Bunker (Sally Struthers) already had lost a baby that way on ''All in the Family.''

''The more interesting story seemed to be, what would this 47-year-old woman really do in her life,'' Lear said. ''And the conclusion we reached was that her family would be thoroughly involved in the deepest concern about all this.''

''We knew where the daughter would be on all this,'' Lear said, referring to Maude’s daughter, Carol (played by Adrienne Barbeau), a committed feminist who first brings up the idea of abortion on the show, ''and that Maude would be absolutely torn, but that she’d come down on the side, given her age, of not having a child.''

End Quote

I find that to be a fascinating theme that would likely resonate today, given the hotly contested nature of the national abortion conversation.

1973 Column

Here’s a quote from the humorist Erma Bomeck. This story is being told in the 2017 work “Women At the Wheel: A Century of Buying, Driving, and Fixing Cars” by Katherine J. Parkin. 


End Quote

1975 Song

Next up is the 1975 with the classic rock song Sweet Emotion by Aerosmith off the album Toys in the Attic. And I’ve heard this song 100s of times and never picked up on this usage. 


I pulled into town in a police car

Your daddy said I took it just a little too far

You're telling her things but your girlfriend lied

You can't catch me 'cause the rabbit done died

End Quote

1978 Movie

The Rabbit Test was the 1978 film debut of one Billy Crystal. It was directed by Joan Rivers. It was actually kind of a star studded cast to have a newbie in the lead role. But of course, Billy Crystal is a star now, so it seemed to work out just fine. In it, Crystal plays a man who becomes pregnant. There is a scene where Crystal is led into the doctor’s office for results and finds a dead rabbit laying on the desk.

1978 TV Show

In a 1978 episode of M*A*S*H (one of my favorite shows of all time). I’ll attempt my own synopsis here. 

Margaret seems to be having a tough time. It turns out she might be pregnant. She knows this would end her career. A more conventional test would need to go to Tokyo and would take too long, so Hawkeye wants to use one of Radar’s rabbits. Radar refuses to let the rabbit die for the test, so Hawkeye and Margaret perform surgery to remove the rabbits ovaries when the time comes to inspect them. And thus the rabbit lived. And also, spoiler alert, Margaret was not pregnant.

1979 Book

Our phrase was used in a 1979 book called True Confessions by John Gregory Dunne. This book was based on the 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short. 


You’re sure. It was a statement, flat and unemotional. He tapped his fingers on the wheel waiting for the light to change.

Pretty sure. She forced herself to look squarely at him. Very sure. The rabbit died. 

End Quote

1980 Book

In 1980, Bantam Books published “I Should Have Seen It Coming When the Rabbit Died” by Teresa Bloomingdale. The opening stanza of the introduction reads:


End Quote

I must note, the phrase is rarely used today. It seems to have started to die out in the 1980s. But I did find one recent reference.

2016 Movie

This from a 2016 short comedy by writer and director Daniel Boddicker called “The Rabbit Died”. Here’s a short synopsis from the IMDb page:


A man has a slight case of pregnant after a one-night stand.

End Quote 

It stars Lindsay Tornquist, Ramon O. Torres, and Sean-Michael Wilkinson. Wilkinson may be familiar to you listeners, as he is best known for the cop dramas Blue Bloods and FBI, as well as the web series Very Mary Kate. 

I should note, Mr. Boddicker does not appear to be an older gentleman. I found his IMDb photo as well as his LinkedIn page and he appears to be in his 30s. But even if he looks great, he’s not in his 50s when the phrase would have still been in use where he would have heard it. Though if he grew up with Nick at Nite reruns, it’s possible he picked it up naturally. 

Wrap Up

To wrap things up, this was a fascinating look for me because I’d never heard this phrase before. It’s been a while since I was able to just jump into something completely new for me. I didn’t know about the rabbit test and I didn’t know about “the rabbit died”. But I can tell you, I feel bad for Walter in Maude, having a kid in their late 40s when they weren’t planning on it. That is also one of my biggest fears as someone in his mid-40s. I’ve had a vasectomy and the thought of having another baby still scares me. No rabbits dying for me, please!

But of course, this phrase seems to be waning its way into history. It was fun to research and fun to learn about. But I don’t want to think of rabbits dying anytime someone gets pregnant, so I’m okay with this phrase dying off itself. 


That’s about all we have for today. If you have any thoughts on the show, or pop culture references we should have included, reach out to us on social media where we are @bunnytrailspod, or comment on our website


It’s patron poll time!

Recently we posed this question to our Patrons:

When was the last time you tried something new?

And like good nerds do, all of our Patrons said they had tried something new in at least the last two weeks. I’m so proud of our word nerd group!

Jan shared a pretty cool example:


It's on my mind because I just had to shake the jars, but I make my own kahlua and usually use whole coffee beans. I'm trying a small batch with ground coffee for the first time to see if it makes a difference (still got a normal batch going in case things go wrong).

End Quote


When we asked this poll question, I had just attempted to do something new with our strategic planning process with a volunteer group I work with. We usually plan about 6 months in advance, but I wanted to try a National-level program that uses a multi-year approach. The program isn't new, but we've never done anything like it in this volunteer organization. So far it has received high praise, and we’ve been able to stick with it for the last two months, so that’s a start. Now to see if we can manage it for the next two years!


The last new thing I tried was a Hibiscus Lime Cinnamon Hard Apple Cider. It was really good. 

As a reminder, our silly polls mean absolutely nothing and are not scientifically valid. But Patrons of all levels get to take part. Head over to to take this week’s poll!



Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. Until then remember, 


Words belong to their users. 

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