I used to have these neighbors (we’ll call them Jim and Janine), who were always asking me to call the cops and report the purportedly suspicious things our neighbors were doing.
For example, Jim was convinced that the people living in the house next to his were pumping sewage from their basement into the street. And what was his evidence for this outrageous claim? A brown stain on the curb in front of his house. Why the single mom and her teenage daughter who occupied the home had raw sewage floating about in their basement and/or lacked the customary plumbing systems that every other house on our block seemed to have, he couldn’t say. He also couldn’t explain why there was no odor or even moisture along the curb. Nevertheless, this shortage of answers didn’t stop him from ranting to me about “the excrement” every chance he got.
Janine had a different issue. She wanted me to call the cops on the multi-generational Asian family living in the house next to mine because she was sure they were “running a brothel.” She even went so far as to claim that, one night, “one of ladies” asked Jim if he needed some “company.” Why Janine cared what anyone might have said to her husband is a mystery given that she wanted me to call the cops on him too. See, Jim liked to leave food out for the stray cats of the neighborhood and, on occasion, he would let some of them into the house. Janine wanted this to stop.
Clearly, Jim and Janine had some problems, and I didn’t want to get mixed up in them. If they wanted to inform the police of their neighbor-based conspiracy theories (or their spouse’s odd behavior), they’d have to do it themselves. I wasn’t going to rat on the neighbors (who weren’t doing anything wrong) for them.
Bizarre as all that was, the whole experience got me thinking about the malleability of the word rat. After all, one of the reasons I didn’t want to “rat” Jim out to the cops was that, by attracting stray felines to his house, he was inadvertently keeping the neighborhood’s “rat” population down. Another was that, had I stuck my neck out for these two lunatics, word would have spread, and I would have become the neighborhood “rat.” See what I mean? It’s a very flexible term!
So where does the word rat come from and how did it come to have these different meanings? There’s only one way to find out. Let’s consult the books!
The Oxford English Dictionary gives several definitions for rat:
1. A rodent of some of the larger species of the genus Mus., especially M. rattus, the black rat (now almost extinct), and M. decumanus, the common gray, brown, or Norway rat.
2. In phrases, [such as] To smell a rat, [meaning] to suspect something
3. Used as an opprobrious or familiar epithet
4. A pirate
5. Something resembling a rat in shape
6. The act of changing one’s side [as in, “You dirty, double-crossing rat!”]
7. Attributive [as to identify a kind of something, e.g., rat poison, or rat terrier]
In addition to these definitions, the OED also includes a note about the word’s origin, which it initially describes as “uncertain,” but then adds: “it seems probable that it was adopted first in the Teutonic [aka: Germanic] languages, when the animal came to be known in western Europe, and thence passed into the Romance tongues.”
The (Ayto) Dictionary of Word Origins (DWO) offers a similarly phoned-in etymology, saying rat is “a general western European term” with a rather far-flung family tree that includes the “French rat, Italian ratto, Spanish ratta, German ratte, Dutch rat, Swedish raatta, and Danish rotte.” In the end, though, the DWO goes on to say that all of these terms “come from vulgar Latin rattus, whose origin is unknown.”
Writing in Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, Eric Partridge offers a (somewhat) more certain history of rat, which he links to:
Middle English rat or ratte, Old English raet [which is] akin to Medieval Dutch and Dutch rat, ratte, rotte, Old High German ratta, Middle High German and German ratte, Old Saxon ratta, and probably akin to Latin rodare, to gnaw. English dialect exhibits the variation ratten, whence probably the English to ratten, or “to rob of tools or machinery”; the now dialectical ratton, however, comes rather from the Medieval French, French diminutive raton. The slang ratty, meaning “angry or easily angered,” derives from ratty, of or like a rat, as rats [are know to be] fierce creatures.
The descent into slang at the end of this excerpt from Origins is no accident, as Partridge is a well-known figure in its study. His mammoth Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English captures a wide variety of uses for rat (as a noun), including: a drunken person taken into custody, a clergyman, a police spy, an infernal machine for the foundering of insured bottoms (nautical), a street urchin or wharf laborer, a workman that has not served his time and cannot enter a union, and any type of thief. In its verb form, rat means “to steal or rob; to search the body of a dead man after battle (WWI).”
Obviously, some of these more colorful uses of rat inform the various definitions included in those captured by the OED.
For what it’s worth, the Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English also includes a variety of other fun rat-related terms worth having under your belt, including:
Rat Castle – prison
Rat-house – an asylum for the insane (Australia)
Rat in your fore-chains – nautical insult to a sloppy ship
Rat run – a back alley or narrow passage between buildings
Ratbag – An ill-disposed person, an eccentric, a worthless person
Ratbaggery – A display of eccentricity
I could go on, but something is bothering me about all the rat disparaging going on here. Ecologically speaking, the rat is a very successful creature, as indicated by its spread around the globe. Along with only a handful of other creatures, the rat has been able to profit from humanity’s massive imprint on the planet while most other species have suffered. Therefore, it strikes me as a little odd that rat has come to signify something “bad.” Shouldn’t the term be affiliated with resourcefulness, grit, or achievement?
Maybe. “In Asia, the rat is often a symbolic animal that brings good luck,” says the Continuum Encyclopedia of Symbols. “It is an attendant of the god of wealth ; in China as well as in Siberia, the absence of rats in one’s home and yard is regarded as an unsettling sign.”[Think rats fleeing a sinking ship. – Ed.]
Biedermann’s Dictionary of Symbolism contains similar sentiments, but it isn’t long before both texts shift gears and point out how rats, which were often seen in Europe as “destroyers of stored food” and “transmitters of disease” developed a reputation for “being in league with the Devil, demons, and witches” who were always working to “bring the unsuspecting to ruin.”
No wonder that, whereas the majority of other creatures flee from humans, rats are one of the few creatures that send us packing, especially when they’re in large numbers. As you might expect, and as the entries in the aforementioned symbolic dictionaries suggest, this fear has saturated our cultural consciousness and even gnawed its way into our subconscious.
For example, as noted in the The Dictionary of World Folklore (Larousse), the folklore of the rat is similar to that of the mouse, although it is generally less well-regarded:
It is often a symbol of death, perhaps because of early apprehension of its connection with the plague virus. In modern folklore the sailor’s superstition that rats can sense when a ship is about to sink, and will leave it, has become proverbial for the desertion of adherents experienced by any individual or project whose popularity is waning.
Similar sentiments surface in the entry for rat found in the Dream Dictionary from A to Z:
The rat is a symbol of fears and anxieties, or is the diseased or devious part of dreamer or their situation. It can also represent something which is repulsive in some way. The dreamer may be experiencing disloyalty from a friend or colleague. Other associations are of dirt and squalor, or of time gnawing away at our life and the unacceptable parts of oneself.
Dreams are one thing, full-on rat-related psychological turmoil is another. This brings us to “Rat-Man,” the nickname used in the literature of psychoanalysis that refers to a patient of Sigmund Freud. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Psychology, “The Rat Man was tormented by fantasies of rats gnawing at his father’s anus and that of a woman to whom he was attracted.”
Oh, boy …. (now I’m going to have nightmares)
Whether the Rat Man was cured of this malady, I can’t say. If you’re interested to know more, see Freud’s case study titled, “Notes upon a Case of Obsessional Neurosis,” published in 1909.