Rainbows and unicorns: A linguistic hist

February 27 [Wed], 2013, 7:19

It all seems to date back to a19th-century French book

It's not all rainbows and butterflies, you know. Or rainbows and unicorns. Or butterflies and unicorns. But when it comes to referring to impossibly perfect conditions where everyone's happy and nothing goes wrong, we're living in a golden age of.

A Google News search for just the past week brings up almost 500 hits forrainbows and unicornsorrainbows and butterflies. On this Google Ngram Viewergraph below, you can see that both expressions, as well asbutterflies and rainbows, are on the rise, withrainbows and unicornsin particular shooting steadily up since 2003.

Rainbows and butterflies came together first. The earliest attestation I've found is from an 1864 book by Jenny d' Hricourt (translated from French) titledA Woman's Philosophy of Woman, wherewe read:

...if [women] were free and happy they would be less eager for illusions and cajoleries and it would no longer be necessary in writing to them to placerainbows and butterflies' wingsunder contribution

It's butterfly wings instead of entire butterflies, but the sentiment seems the same. The phrase also occurs in William S. Lord's 1897 poem , which lists some things that the pleasant sound of a jingling bell brings to mind:

Sunshine and sugar and honey and beesRainbows and butterflies wings,Bird songs and brook songs and wide spreading trees,Of joy little Jingle bell sings.

Butterflies and rainbowsalso appears in the late 19thcentury, in an 1896 editorial that scornfully refers to the idea of moving the U.S. to a dual gold-and-silver standard as "chasing butterflies and rainbows."

Pairings ofrainbowswithbutterflies(not justbutterflies' wings) continue to appear on into the 20thcentury, often as the objects ofchasing,before the steady rise in the graph that began in the 1970s. Since then, "rainbows and butterflies" has been the title of a 1983 song by Billy Swan, the title ofof poetry, and part of the lyrics of Maroon 5's 2005 song "She Will Be Loved."

In the 1980s,unicornsmade their entry, at around the same time that Hasbro began marketing its My Little Pony line of toys, which included both a Rainbow Ponies and a Unicorn Ponies collection. However, I can't claim that this event was the you-got-your-chocolate-in-my-peanut-butter moment for rainbows and unicorns; it may be that an increasing popularity of unicorns was responsible for both phenomena. A on the Zandl Marketing Group's blog puts the increasing popularity of rainbows and unicorns in the context of the mainstreaming of gay cultural symbols. In any case, in the mid-80s we begin to see examples like this one from 1984:

The only calendars left in the stores just before the holidays are those withunicorns and rainbowson them. []

Although unicorns arrived late to the party, they've hit it off so well with rainbows that for some, it's not enough just to have the two words conjoined byand. In the past few years, unicorns that fart rainbows seem to have become. For an even tighter linkage, there's, a half-rainbow, half-unicorn character in Cartoon Network'sAdventure Timeseries.

These days,unicorns sometimes get together with butterflies to the exclusion of rainbows. There aren't enough examples to have been captured in the Google Ngram corpus, but Google Books has a 1996 example ofbutterflies and unicornsinSkywriting,by Margarita Engle:

I would take the alligators out of its rivers and the scorpions out of its soil, replacing them withbutterflies and unicorns.

In the other order, "Unicorns and Butterflies" is the name of not one but, each begun sometime in the last two years.

Some people prefer not to choose between unicorns and butterflies with their rainbows. The "Rainbows and Butterflies and Unicorns"doesn't. And in the 2008 movieHorton Hears a Who,a child character takes that earlier scatological unicorn-rainbow connection, reverses its direction, and brings in the butterflies, telling of an imaginary world where "there are unicorns who eat rainbows and poop butterflies!"

Other words to appear in RBU contexts includesmiles, sunshine, balloons, bunnies, kittens,andlollipops.In a 1981 monologue, Steve Martin declares that he believes in "rainbows and puppy dogs and fairy tales." Three-syllable nouns, it seems, tend to be favored forrainbowcollocations; specifically, three-syllable nouns consisting of an unstressed syllable sandwiched between two stressed syllables:BUTTerflies,Unicorns,LOLlipops,PUPpydogs,FAIRytales.This kind of three-syllable string is known in poetry circles as a cretic.

So if you'd like to enrich the language with some newrainbow-cretic collocations, I offer my suggestion:Rainbows and boogeymen and heart attacks.

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