Know Your Words · The Art of the Dictionary

Oh, Rats!

Alberta_Department_of_Public_Health_Rat_Poster_(26497442131)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.

rats2For 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.

Rat-DoSFor 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.

Know Your Words · The Art of the Dictionary

Dig This Damn Diagram!

It was one of those nights wherein I couldn’t fall asleep. Staring at the ceiling, I listened as insects chirped in the warm night air, cars whooshed by on nearby streets, and sirens screamed in the distance. Despite the noise, ideas rose from the inky-black depths of my brain, danced in the forefront of my mind for a minute or two, and then vanished back into the ether from which they came. Why the came in the order they did I’m not sure, for none seemed connected to its predecessor. Naturally, most of the ideas or thoughts that crossed my mind were ridiculous. One or two were profound and a few, like the following, were … interesting.

Dig this Damn Diagram!

Damn Diagram

Why I began to ponder sentence diagrams on this sleepless night I can’t say, but thinking about them made me wonder: If you can diagram a sentence, can you diagram a word? As the above graphic demonstrates, you can!

Why I picked the word damn I don’t know, but I’ll be damned if what I’ve produced here isn’t one cool diagram!

I know, it’s (probably) not perfect. I likely missed a line connecting this to that or I forgot to include one damned thing or another. Nevertheless, I think you get the idea that this graphic approach to delving into a word’s meaning, history, and usage (along with other, related factoids) is equally as effective in conveying the information I typically try to get across in words.

One of the things this graphic doesn’t include is the name of the dictionaries and other sources I used to generate this graphic. Here they are:

Definitions – Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language
Etymology – Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English
Theology – The Encyclopedia of Hell (Van Scott)
First Use – Compact Oxford English Dictionary (Partridge)
Cultural Expressions – Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins


Know Your Words · The Art of the Dictionary

The Bedeviling Symbol of the Octopus

0130181842Earlier today, while thumbing through some books in search of blogspiration, I found myself lazily flipping  the pages of The Dictionary of Symbolism, where I came across an intriguing entry for octopus.

After teasing us with a somewhat poetic description of the beast–“Its arms, depicted as rolled up in spirals, form an impressive symmetry around the body with its two eyes, the whole suggesting a head surrounded by snake-like hair”–goes on to suggest it might have been the inspiration for the mythical figures of Medusa and the Scylla, “the mythical sea monster who menaced Odysseus and his crew.” Then it goes on to talk about s cuttlefish, and how the ink emitted by both these animals was deemed a symbol of their ties to “mysterious and otherworldly forces.”

0130182215aAnd what “mysterious and otherworldly” forces might those be? It didn’t care to elaborate, but the implication was that, like the ink, they were dark.

Fortunately, there are other symbol references that are more willing to lay it on the line. Among them are the Continuum Encyclopedia of Symbols, which declares “Even in earliest times, [the octopus] became a symbol of the spirit of the devil and of hell in general because of its eight tentacles.”

Okay, that’s dark, but what the hell does possessing eight tentacles have to do with the devil or hell? (Get it, possessing?)

Sadly, Cirlot’s A Dictionary of Symbols doesn’t offer much more.

[The octopus] … has the same significance as the dragon-whale myth. As a decorative motif…. It is related to the spider’s web and the spiral, both being symbolic of the mystic Center and of the unfolding of creation. It also has been credited with a merely existential significance.

Clearly, Cirlot cares more about dragons than octopi, because one must read that entry to find out just what that significance is. (You’d think you could read the entry for whale as well, and I did, but that one is rather thin too.) I took the time to read the entry for dragon, and I was glad to find it wasn’t wasted.

The dragon … stands for ‘things animal’ par excellence, and here we have a first glimpse of its symbolic meaning, related to the Sumerian concept of the animal as ‘adversary,’ a concept which later came to be attached to the devil.

Now we’re getting somewhere! With it’s odd, alien form and serpent-like appendages for arms, no wonder the octopus was the inspiration for terrifying creatures like Medusa and sea monsters who emerge from the inky deep to imprison us or drag us off into the dark realm they call home. It’s the stuff of dreams, or better yet nightmares!

As it turns out, it is the stuff of dreams and nightmares (but mostly the latter). This is why, in addition to symbol references, it’s worthwhile to have a few dream dictionaries hanging around the shelves of your library, for the meaning of the images, icons, and symbols conjured by our minds at night often make themselves known in our dreams.

For example, consider the following excerpt from the octopus entry in The Dream Dictionary from A to Z:

In their positive form, [octopuses] reflect emotional depth and the ability to direct your energy in many directions without losing your center…. [They] may also be associated with a person or situation that has many ways of holding or affecting you, such as a mother or a debt.

0130181905The Watkins Dream Dictionary of Dreams offers a similar, albeit slightly more sinister interpretation of the dreamed octopus. According to this text, octopi in dreams are noteworthy because:

For a two-handed human, the idea of having eight legs, each with a different function, might suggest an inability to focus on one thing at a time, or a tendency to disperse one’s essential energies in unfruitful activities. Octopi may also be threatening, and indicative of emotional minefields—lunging unexpectedly at a human being from the depths of the ocean.

Crisp’s Dream Dictionary, after echoing the previous sentiments about mothers (what’s that about?), simply notes that an octopus in a dream can “symbolize any unconscious fear” capable of “dragging us into its realm of irrational terror.”

Sounds rather adversarial to me.

PS.) And what do octopuses have to do with hockey? Find out here!


Note: This is the second version of this post. There was a GLARING error in the first–I completely misread a passage in one of the texts quoted here and built my post around that misunderstanding. Luckily, I was able to fix it but, boy oh boy is my face red. I’d like to chalk it up to staying up late or drinking too much coffee, but the sad truth is that I’m just a moron sometimes. My apologies.

The Art of the Dictionary

Art of the Dictionary (Vol. 2)

If you haven’t noticed, I’m rather focused on words. What they mean, where they come from, how they’re used–I’m interested in all of it. This, I suppose, is why I’ve been filling my home with dictionaries and other references for the past few years and, as far as I can tell, this obsession shows no sign of letting go.

Be that as it may, tonight I’m going to do something a little different. Instead of finding a word to dig into on the digital pages of this blog, I’ve decided to focus exclusively on the graphics, illustrations, and images found alongside the words in some of the references that line the Butter Lamb Reference Library’s shelves.

As you’ll see below, I should do this more often.

1) An illustration found within the section on horse racing in The Slang of Sin


“Horse racing has been a fixture of American popular culture since the earliest days of European immigrants. The first race conducted in what would become the United States was held in Hempstead Plain, New York in 1665…. But–WAIT–do not forget! Because of the gambling component inherent in horse racing, it is a vice and a sin…. Either we learned our lesson or we forgot it.”

2) Illustration accompanying the entry for “Harrowing of Hell” in the Encyclopedia of Hell


“During the the three days between the time Christ’s death on Good Friday and his resurrection on Easter Sunday, Christians believe that Jesus descended into hell and freed the souls of the just who had died prior to his crucifixion. This event, called the harrowing of hell, is not included in the Bible, but it has been taught by religious scholars from the earliest days of Christianity…. Some accounts of the harrowing include a trial held in the underworld to determine whether Christ’s action is just.”

3) Illustration accompanying the entry for “Hedgehog” in the Dictionary of Symbolism


Hedgehog – The animal that is “armed, and yet a hero of peace,” respected throughout the areas, in the Old World, where it is found. In antiquity its spines were used to roughen cloth, and its meat to make herbal medicine, e.g., against hair loss, since its spines evoked the image of resilient hair. The skin of a hedgehog hung from a grapevine was through to ward off hail. The shrewdness of the hedgehog as a storer of food was extolled by Pliny the Elder.”

4) Illustration accompanying the entry for “gremlin” in the Dictionary of World Folklore


“Gremlin – Modern mischievous spirits of machinery, diminutive imps first identified by airforcemen in World War I, but only widely recognized in World War II…. Gremlins delight in plaguing humans by causing tools and machinery to malfunction, loosening a screw here and blocking a pipe there to cause maximum disruption at the most critical moments. Descriptions of gremlins vary widely; they are said to range from 6 to 21 inches in height, and despite their high level of aerial involvement they have no wings and must hitch rides with the airmen they plague.”

5) Cover of the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue

Vulgar Tongue

No real fun or interesting tidbits to share here, I just love this illustration. To give it some context, here’s an excerpt from the dictionary’s preface:

“By an occasional reference to our pages, the [young men of fashion] may be initiated into all the peculiarities of our language by which the man of spirit is distinguished from the man of worth. They may now talk bawdy before their papas, without the fear of detection, and abuse their less spirited companions who prefer a good dinner at home to a glorious up-shot in the highway, without the hazard of a cudgelling.”

The Art of the Dictionary

Going Round and Round with Saturn

[Note: My original intent for this post was simply to show some of the cool art that adorns the various dictionaries and other books in the ARL’s collection under the heading of “The Art of the Dictionary.” Unfortunately, I got carried away and ended up writing a full-blown post on a hopelessly intriguing figure who’s shrouded in mystery: Saturn.]

Credit: Dictionary of Symbols

Not long ago, when I was suffering through what I can only call a dark time, I turned to more than a few of the books in my library to find some answers as to what might be happening and why. (I tried a shrink too, but the books were more useful.) One of them that left a “mark” was Thomas Moore’s Care of the Soul, which has a chapter with the rather curious title, “Gifts of Depression.” Within that chapter is a section bearing the sub-heading, “Saturn’s Child,” which contains sentiments like this:

… There was a time, five or six hundred years ago, when melancholy was identified with the Roman god Saturn. To be depressed was to be “in Saturn,” and a person chronically disposed to melancholy was known as a “child of Saturn.” […] These melancholic thoughts are are deeply rooted in Saturn’s preference for days gone by, for memory and the sense that time is passing. These thoughts and feelings, sad as they are, favor the soul’s desire to be both in time and in eternity, and so in a strange way, can be pleasing.

In traditional texts, Saturn is characterized as cold and distant … Saturn was also traditionally identified with the metal lead, giving the soul weight and density, allowing the light, airy elements to coalesce…. As we age, our ideas, formerly light and rambling, and unrelated to each other, become more densely gathered into values and philosophy, giving our lives substance and firmness.

For whatever reason, these words of Moore’s have stuck with me and I’ve become a little obsessed with this notion of a sort of “god of melancholy.” So, naturally, I dug into the reference section of my library to learn more about this god of yore and to see if what Moore had to say about him was accurate.

What I found, not surprisingly perhaps, were differing myths surrounding Saturn and a rich symbolic history that seems to contradict the myths without completely destroying the somewhat tenuous, yet highly visible thread that weaves its way through and unites them all.

Credit: Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature

Here are a few excerpts demonstrating both those contradictions and unifying themes.


Saturn symbolizes time, with its ravenous appetite for life, devours all its creations, whether they are beings, things, ideas or sentiments. He is also symbolic of the insufficiency, in the mystic sense, of any order of existence within the plane of the temporal, or the necessity for the “reign of Cronos” to be succeeded by another cosmic mode of existence in which time has no place. Time brings restlessness–the sense of duration lasting from the moment of stimulus up to the instant of satisfaction. Hence Saturn is symbolic of activity, of slow, implacable dynamism, of realization and communication; and this is why he is said to have devoured his children and why he is related to the Ouroboros (or the serpent which bites its own tail). Other attributes are the oar (standing for navigation nad progress in things temporal), the hourglass and the scythe. In the scythe we can detect a double meaning: first, its function of cutting parallel to and corroborating the symbolism of devouring; and, secondly, its curved shape, which invariably corresponds to the feminine principle. This is why … Saturn takes on the same characteristic ambiguity of gender and sex, and is related to the earth, the sarcophagus and putrefaction, as well as the color black…. Saturn is in every case, a symbol of the law of limitation which gives shape to life, or the localized expression in time and space of the universal life.

A Dictionary of Symbols

A very old Italian god identified with Cronus. He was said to have come from Greece to Italy in very early times, when Jupiter dethroned him and hurled him from Olympus. He established himself on the Capitol, on the site of Rome, and founded a village there, which bore the name of Saturnia. The reign of Saturn was extremely prosperous. This was the Golden Age. Saturn taught people how to cultivate the ground…. He was depicted armed with a scythe and his name was was associated with the invention of viticulture. He was, however, sometimes considered as a god of the underworld.

Penguin Dictionary of Classical Mythology

[Speaking of his reign in Italy …] Men lived like the gods, without care, in uninterrupted happiness, health, and strength; they did not grow old; and to them death was a slumber which relieved them of their present nature and transformed them into daemons. The earth yielded every kind of fruit and gave up all its treasures without cultivation or labor. Under the reign of Saturn, men lived a life of paradise.

Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature