Mmmm, You Dirty Rat!

By Maeve Maddox

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It’s the rare media mention of Wall Street con man Bernie Madoff that doesn’t contain the word “rat” in some context.

Bernard Madoff is an evil crook – but apparently not a rat.

The Big Rat’s off to the Big House for Life, What About the Little Rats?

Madoff may rat out co-conspirators

They [Mr. and Mrs. Madoff] seemed to stay apart from the herd,” the club member said. “They chose not to get into that social rat race.”

U.S. District Judge Denny Chin who presumably will sentence Madoff said that he’d sharply limit the number of Madoff victims who get to shake their fist in the swindler’s face and tell him what a rat he is…

It is almost inconceivable that Madoff could have spent 20 years squirreling away clients’ money in a Chase Manhattan bank account, conducting virtually no legitimate transactions, without anybody at Madoff Investment Securities smelling a rat –

The etymological origin of the word rat is lost in the mists of the long history shared by this repugnant animal and human beings. (I know, white rats make nice pets. I’m talking about nasty rats au naturel.)

The OED offers several possible origins, but concludes:

It is uncertain whether the Latin and Romance words are cognate with the Germanic words, or whether they were borrowed from Germanic, or vice versa; in any case the ultimate origin is uncertain; perhaps imitative of the sound of gnawing.

The OED also offers seven entries for rat as a noun and three for rat as a verb.

The literal meaning of rat is, of course, “a rodent resembling a large mouse, often with a naked or sparsely haired tail.”

Then there are the figurative uses that derive from the fact that rats are associated with filth and that they are said to be quick to leave a sinking ship or a falling house. The sense of rat as “one who abandons his associates” was in use in 1629.

rat as a noun
rat – a despicable person, especially one who betrays or informs upon associates.
rat – scab laborer
NOTE: a scab is either an employee who works while his colleagues are on strike, or an outsider hired to replace a striking worker.
rat – a pad of material, typically hair, worn as part of a woman’s coiffure to puff out her own hair.

rat as a verb
rat – intransitive verb – to desert a party, cause, or princple; to go over as a deserter; to abandon, desert, or betray any person or thing.
rat – transitive verb – to backcomb or tease hair
rat – intransitive – to act as an informer; to betray to the police or other authorities
rat on – to inform on a person
rat out – to inform on a person; to betray a person to the police or other authorities

Other rat words and expressions
rat-fink – teenage slang from the 60s. A pleonasm since either rat or fink alone can mean an informant or, as verbs to inform.
rat-race – A fiercely competitive race or contest; spec. urban working life regarded as an unremitting struggle for wealth ., status, etc.
ratsbane – arsenic
rathole – messy, nasty place
rat-pack – juvenile gang; celebrities surrounding Frank Sinatra
to smell a rat – to suspect that something is wrong

Rat has even become a suffix to create words that mean “person who frequents” such and such a place: dock-rat, bar-rat, rug-rat, etc.

My brother, like many Cagney impersonators, thought he was quoting Cagney when he said, with appropriate grimaces and inflections, “Mmmmm, you dirty rat!” According to the Wikipedia Cagney bio, what Cagney really said in the movie Taxi! was

Come out and take it, you dirty, yellow-bellied rat, or I’ll give it to you through the door!”

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5 Responses to “Mmmm, You Dirty Rat!”

  • T. Grillo

    This one was very entertaining, Maeve. Thanks! I once gave my 5th grade students an English assignment along these same lines – using the word ‘sweep.’ They really had fun with it.

  • A C

    In fact, it’s more than just white rats that make good pets. We have a beige spotted rat, a black and white hooded rat, and a hairless rat. As I understand it, white rats are mostly lab rats. Even wild rats are basically social and clean, they just happen to live in filthy environments as scavengers of our waste.

    Of course, they happily hoard, steal, and hide food from others. Though I don’t think they actually fight over it.

  • Charlie

    I just learned a new one, rat-rod, from my son-in-law. He just got a new cab for his project car. When I asked what colour it would be he responded with primer black since it was going to be a rat-rod.

    Here is Wikipedia’s definition:
    A rat rod is a style of hot rod or custom car that, in most cases, imitates (or exaggerates) the early hot rods of the 40s, 50s, and 60s. It is not to be confused with the somewhat closely related “traditional” hot rod, which is an accurate re-creation or period-correct restoration of a hot rod from the same era.

    Most rat rods appear “unfinished” (whether they actually are or are not), with just the bare essentials to be driven.

    The rat rod is the visualization of the idea of function over form. Rat rods are meant to be driven, not shown off. Sometimes the customization will include using spare parts, or parts from another car altogether.

    Something to ad to the “rat list”.

  • mand

    Personally i like rats – wild ones included. They’ve got a living to make, after all. And i know they carry diseases. Humans carry diseases too!

    Mind you, if we had rats in the roof i’d still call pest control.

  • mand

    @ A C – a kindred spirit!

    ‘They happily hoard, steal, and hide food from others. Though I don’t think they actually fight over it’ – no more than humans, anyway, when starving. ;0)

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