“Bye, baby bunting, Father’s gone a-hunting…”
You’ve probably heard or read that one sometime in your life, maybe around the same time as “See-saw, Margery Daw.” It may be the first thing that comes to your mind when you see bunting.
Bunting fits there; there aren’t a whole lot of rhymes for hunting, and this one has a /b/ to work with it, giving a nice bumping, bouncing sound, heavier than banter (or Banting) and less scrunchy than bunching, and sharper than bending. But, now, tell me: what exactly does bunting mean in that rhyme? There are several words bunting, with different meanings and apparently different origins (though they all have in common that the origin is uncertain…).
Perhaps it’s the bunting that refers to a kind of light, shiny fabric used for ribbons and flags and decorations at festivals and political events. These days it can be any of quite a few fabrics, often synthetic, but originally it was a kind of worsted wool. In a political race, the one who had not been bested got to bring out the worsted. But I don’t think that’s the bunting in the rhyme.
I’m pretty sure that the baby in question is not playing baseball, either, unless he’s a Babe Ruth. So we can rule out a relation to that verb bunt that refers to hitting a baseball without swinging the bat.
When a sail bunts, it’s not deflecting a ball; it’s swelling, bellying out in the middle. The word almost seems too hard for such a thing, but there it is: bunting can refer to the bellying or bulging of a sail, net, or similar thing. There is some suggestion that baby bunting may mean the kid is pudgy, perhaps fattening.
Or perhaps the baby is a bird of the family Emberizidae. These various types of buntings are small birds, rather like finches. We can imagine that Margery Daw might be a bird (specifically a daw, of course – wife of Jack Daw?), so perhaps baby bunting is, well, a baby bunting? But then there’s the issue of “Father’s gone a-hunting.” Buntings don’t really go hunting; they eat seeds, and such bugs as they might happen to get (depending on the species of bunting). But you may see a bunting on a hunting trip – as the hunted. In some places (notably around the Mediterranean), they shoot them. So that bye could be a rather permanent bye-bye.