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In Watership Down, when Hazel comes out to talk to General Woundwort, the text first frames him as a "rabbit":

At that moment a rabbit came out of the grass and sat up in the middle of the track. He paused for a few moments and then moved towards them. He was limping and had a strained, resolute look.
'You're General Woundwort, aren't you?' said the rabbit. 'I've come to talk to you.'
'Did Thlayli send you?' asked Woundwort.
'I'm a friend of Thlayli,' replied the rabbit. 'I've come to ask why you're here and what it is you want.'

Later on, though, it shifts to "lame rabbit":

For one beat of his pulse the lame rabbit's idea shone clearly before him. He grasped it and realized what it meant.
[...]
'And this rabbit, sir,' asked Campion. 'Shall I kill kim?'
'No,' replied Woundwort. 'Since they've sent him to ask out terms, he'd better take them back. - Go and tell Thlayli that if the does aren't waiting outside your warren, with him and Blackavar, by the time I get down there, I'll tear the throat out of every buck in the place by ni-Frith tomorrow.'
The lame rabbit seemed about to reply, but Woundwort had already turned away and was explaining to Campion what he was to do. Neither of them bothered to watch the lame rabbit as he limped back by the way he had come.
Watership Down, part IV ("Hazel-rah"), chapter 43: "The Great Patrol"

What is the significance in this shift to the "lame rabbit" phrasing? Why does it start out by using the "rabbit" phrasing, and then move to emphasising Hazel's bad leg, and not using his name?

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It emphasises that Woundwort views authority as linked to physical strength.

We see this more clearly later, when Woundwort learns that Bigwig is not the Chief Rabbit at Watership Down and assumes that his Chief Rabbit must be someone even stronger and fiercer:

Thlayli's reply, when it came, was low and gasping, but perfectly clear. "My Chief Rabbit has told me to defend this run and until he says otherwise I shall stay here."
"His Chief Rabbit?" said Vervain, staring.
It had never occurred to Woundwort or any of his officers that Thlayli was not the Chief Rabbit of his warren. Yet what he said carried immediate conviction. He was speaking the truth. And if he was not the Chief Rabbit, then somewhere close by there must be another, stronger rabbit who was. A stronger rabbit than Thlayli. Where was he? What was he doing at this moment?

-- Chapter 47 (emphasis mine)

It's already obvious that Woundwort's style of leadership is very different from Hazel's, based on suppression and threats of violence rather than mutual respect. He is the Chief Rabbit of Efrafa because he's the strongest, and can easily kill anyone who dares to stand against him. Have a look back to Chapter 34 for a detailed insight into his backstory and his way of thinking.

The scene that you're asking about shows Woundwort's closed-mindedness. He never thinks to suspect that Hazel could be an authority figure at Watership Down. With a physical weakness, he must surely be a low-ranking nobody, sent to offer terms as an expendable. That's Woundwort's way of thinking: power comes from strength alone.

Part of the quote you've excised is this, which I think is important:

At that moment, in the sunset on Watership Down, there was offered to General Woundwort the opportunity to show whether he was really the leader of vision and genius which he believed himself to be, or whether he was no more than a tyrant with the courage and cunning of a pirate.

The implication, of course, is that he's the latter: a tyrant and a bully, incredibly strong and very intelligent when it comes to holding on to power and running a well-organised ship, but not a rabbit of vision. He fails to see the point of Hazel's proposal, just as he fails to see the point of Hazel himself.

TL;DR: Efrafans value physical strength and dismiss Hazel as a nobody, just a "lame rabbit".

Imagine Woundwort's surprise, had he ever learned that that "lame rabbit" was Thlayli's Chief Rabbit!

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  • I'd always assumed 'lame' was a direct reference to the limping.
    – Mast
    Feb 14, 2023 at 19:26
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    @Mast Well yes, he's literally lame, but I was addressing the deeper significance of referring to him as such rather than by any other adjective.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Feb 14, 2023 at 21:06
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    Fully agree with Rand-al'Thor, but to get really specific about the writing, Hazel's name is not used because Woundwort doesn't know it. First he sees a rabbit, then he notices it is lame. The scene is framed from Woundwort's POV to give insight into his character.
    – Evene
    Feb 15, 2023 at 1:32

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