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This article was first published on April 8 2012, and revised and re-posted on March 9 2016.

Fictional Namesake
The blog entry for Pasco looked at a religious side to Easter, so this one will be about a secular aspect of the holiday.

One of the most popular symbols of the season is the Easter Bunny; this was an old German custom, and originally a hare rather than a rabbit (which is why the word bunny is used, to cover both creatures). Hares and rabbits are famous for being prolific breeders, so they make obvious fertility symbols for a festival which occurs in the northern spring and celebrates new life.

However in Australia, this prolificness of the rabbit has made it an invasive pest and an environmental disaster. Rabbits first arrived on the First Fleet and were bred for food in hutches, but don’t seem to have become a problem in mainland Australia until 1859.

In this fateful year, some bright spark named Thomas Austin thought it would be utterly spiffing to release 24 English rabbits onto his country property in Victoria so that he could continue the rabbit hunting lifestyle he had enjoyed in England. Austin opined the rabbits would do little harm, and might provide a touch of “home”.

Austin released both wild grey rabbits and domestic rabbits; the two varieties intermingled to become an extremely hardy and resilient Super Rabbit. Even then it might not have been such a mess, except that all the landowners living around Austin got in on this new fad, and released stacks of rabbits onto their own farms.

Within a decade, there were so many rabbits that 2 million could be killed each year without making the slightest difference to their numbers. By Federation in 1901, they were already holding a Royal Commission to see how the “rabbit problem” could be brought under control.

Rabbits are thought to be the most significant factor in loss of native species. They kill young trees, compete with native animals for resources, and cause horrific soil erosion which takes centuries to recover. They cost the agricultural sector millions of dollars in damages each year.

During the 1980s and ’90s, the environmental movement in Australia made a stand by using a new Easter symbol – the Easter Bilby. Bilbies (pictured) are cute native marsupials with a long muzzle and long ears, and they are an endangered species. The Foundation for a Rabbit-Free Australia used the Easter Bilby to educate people about the damage that feral rabbits do to our delicate ecology.

Haigh’s Chocolates got on board by stopping making chocolate bunnies, and making the very first chocolate bilbies. Darrell Lea also make chocolate bilbies, with part of the profits going to the Save the Bilby Fund. You can buy cheap chocolate bilbies from supermarkets as well, but it’s probably a toss-up whether any of the money you spend will go towards helping real bilbies.

The campaign has been successful, because thirty years ago there was no such thing as a chocolate bilby, and now they are an established part of Easter. Schools and school holiday programs often use the Easter Bilby for egg hunts and other activities, as an opportunity to teach kids about the environment as they play games and munch chocolate. Buying a bilby instead of a bunny feels patriotic and environmentally responsible.

There have been many picture books about the Easter Bilby, but the first one, and the first mention of the Easter Bilby, was Billy the Aussie Easter Bilby, by Queensland children’s author Rose-Marie Dusting, in 1979. Rose-Marie’s first version of the story was written in 1968, when she was only nine years old. Most likely, Rose-Marie chose the name Billy because it sounds like the word bilby.

Name Information
Billy is a pet form of Bill, which is short for William; it has been used an an independent name since the 18th century. People often ask how Bill became short for William (which doesn’t start with a B), but nobody seems to know for sure. It is presumed to be part of that medieval initial letter swapping which saw Richard become Dick, and Robert become Bob.

Billy is also a vocabulary word which has a particular resonance in Australia – a billy is a cooking pot used to boil water on a campfire. It’s thought that the word billycan comes from the large cans used to transport bully beef (corned beef) on ships sent to Australia or during exploration in the outback.

It’s a word which reminds us of the outback and our history, and even now some older Australians will say they are going to put the billy on for tea, when they just mean the kettle. Billy Tea is a brand of strong tea which has been sold since the late 19th century, and many arcane methods are suggested for making the perfect brew of tea over a campfire. You can read of billies in the poems of Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson, the most famous reference being the jolly swagman in Waltzing Matilda, who sang as he watched and waited ’til his billy boiled.

billy lid is not just a lid for a billy, but also affectionate rhyming slang for “kid” (child). There’s also the Puffing Billy steam train network near Melbourne, a major tourist attraction, and billy buttons, a type of native daisy.

One of the most famous Australian men who went by the name was Billy Blue, the first Australian convict to become a celebrity. Described in the records as a “Jamaican Negro”, Billy claimed to be a freed slave with some Native American heritage who had fought with the British during the War of Independence. When convicted, he was living in London, and had stolen sugar to use in his chocolate-making business.

In Australia, he became popular with the government and the public for his whimsical personality and witty banter. When he completed his sentence, he became a ferryman, and was granted 80 acres of land in the North Sydney area – Blues Point and William Street are two of several local landmarks named after him.

Other namesakes include Billy the Native, a bushranger who passed into folklore as “the traveller’s friend”; Billy Lynch, an Aboriginal community leader in the Katoomba area with hundreds of proud descendants; Billy Sing, a Chinese-Australian soldier who served with distinction in the Gallipoli Campaign; Billy Thorpe, rock singer from the 1960s and 70s; Billy Elliot, the jockey who rode Phar Lap to victory seven times; and NRL star Billy Slater.

Billy entered the Australian charts in the 1970s at #427, and began climbing steeply. It hasn’t reached the national Top 100, but is often seen around the bottom of popularity charts in certain states, and would not be far off. William is a very popular name, and it is possible that some of those Williams also go by Billy.

In the US (home of Billy the Kid and fictional sailor Billy Budd), Billy has been almost continually on the charts, and was a Top 100 name from the early 1920s until the end of the 1970s, peaking in the 1930s at #20. After that very impressive run, it has been on the decline and is now #794. It also charted as a girl’s name (a variant of Billie) from the 1920s until the 1940s, peaking in 1930 at #527.

In the UK (home of Billy Idol and fictional schoolboy Billy Bunter), Billy was a Top 100 name in the 1990s; it left the Top 100 in 2009 and is currently #122, and has been occasionally used for girls. Billy is still a popular name in Ireland. In Australia, Billy has never had a long run of popularity as in other English-speaking countries, so feels a bit fresher here.

Billly is an environmentally-friendly Easter creation; a name from history; a name from poetry; a name from the landscape; the name of a host of colourful Australian characters. Billy is a name which says, “I’m coming at you world, ready or not!” He’s a true blue wild colonial boy who is cute as a button, and sweet as a chocolate bilby.

POLL RESULTS
Billy received an approval rating of 78%, making it one of the highest-rated names of 2012. 42% of people thought the name Billy was okay, while 11% hated it.

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