The phrase little rabbits have big ears:
– means that children are inclined to eavesdrop;
– is used as a warning to speak more quietly or less frankly in front of children.
It may be a mere modification of the synonymous proverb little pitchers have big ears, and variants, recorded by the English playwright and epigrammatist John Heywood (circa 1496-circa 1578) in A dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the prouerbes in the englishe tongue compacte in a matter concernyng two maner of mariages, made and set foorth by Iohn̄ Heywood (Imprinted at London in Fletestrete by Thomas Berthelet prynter to the kynges hyghnesse, An. M.D.XLVI. ):
Auoyd your children, smal pitchers haue wide eares.
The U.S. journalist Margaret Hubbard Ayer (1849-1903) associated the proverb little pitchers have big ears with “ears cocked like eager little rabbits” in Little Sermons from Experiences, published in the Home Page of the San Francisco Chronicle (San Francisco, California) of Sunday 1st October 1905:
“Little pitchers have big ears” is a saying that every household is familiar with when there are children in constant evidence.
Just how much a child will remember of conversations it has overheard is easy to tell by going back into one’s own memory. Some of us have acquired the best part of our education by listening to the intelligent and elevating talk of older people, which we caught with ears cocked like eager little rabbits for fear of missing all of the marvelous if often incomprehensible words.
The earliest occurrence of the phrase little rabbits have big ears that I have found is from The Jetmore Republican (Jetmore, Kansas) of Friday 16th August 1901:
A certain young man and his lady love stood in the Post Office for as much as an hour, one day recently and talked over their matrimonial affairs and went as far as to even set the date of the wedding which will take place the last of this month. Young man you should be more careful next time and remember that little rabbits sometimes have big ears.
The second-earliest occurrence of the phrase little rabbits have big ears that I have found is from The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, California) of Saturday 25th December 1915:
Little rabbits have big ears.
And it’s a safe bet that most of the youngsters of Sacramento, by peeking under beds and into closets, knew several days before Christmas what Santa Claus was to bring them.
The U.S. author Howard Roger Garis (1873-1962) used the phrase punningly in Uncle Wiggily’s Horn, an Uncle Wiggily story published in many U.S. and Canadian newspapers on Friday 20th December 1935—for example in the Victoria Daily Times (Victoria, British Columbia):
One day a little while before Christmas, when there was no school and the bunny rabbit children were playing in Uncle Wiggily’s Hollow Stump Bungalow, his wife called to him.
“Oh, Wiggy, may I speak you a minute?”
“Yes. Two minutes if you like, my dear,” answered Mr. Longears, who was always polite to his wife, even when he twinkled his pink nose at her in fun. “What is it?”
“I’ll tell you in a little while,” she said, for she noticed that Baby Bunty and some of the other rabbits were listening, though they were pretending to play the game of button, button, who has the gas stove?
“What is it you’re going to tell Daddy?” asked Jingle.
“Never you mind,” said Mrs. Longears, laughing. “Little rabbits have big ears,” she said to her husband, and this made Baby Bunty and all the others all the more anxious to know the secret. For there was a secret they were sure.
The phrase occurs in this full-page advertisement for the shopping centre Downtown, published in the New Castle News (New Castle, Pennsylvania) of Thursday 30th March 1961:
HAVE BIG EARS
SO, EVEN THE YOUNGSTERS HAVE HEARD A LOT OF GOOD REASONS WHY IT PAYS TO SHOP DOWNTOWN!
They know it’s more fun to Shop Downtown because there are so many more stores to visit . . . such a large variety of merchandise . . . all within easy walking distance. They like it better Downtown, and you will, too!