Rats do not have the best reputation. When they show up in writing, they are often used to describe unpleasant or dishonest behavior. Whether you like them or not, though, rats have influenced the English language! And in the spirit of World Rat Day, we’re looking at some famous ratty phrases.
1. Lab Rat
Literally, a “lab rat” is a rat used in laboratory experiments.
However, when you call someone a “lab rat,” it means they are being used for an experiment or to test something new:
The cosmetic company used her as a lab rat for new products.
It can also refer to someone who spends a lot of time working in a laboratory:
I haven’t seen Tim all week; he’s a real lab rat!
It’s worth noting that real lab rats have played a role in some major medical breakthroughs. And while the use of rats in research is sometimes controversial, the phrase “lab rat” has caught on in many contexts.
2. Smell a Rat
If somebody can “smell a rat,” they suspect deception, trickery, or foul-play:
The journalist smelled a rat in the handling of the investigation.
The phrase may have an origin in the ability of cats to smell a rat before they see it. Similarly, to “smell a rat” metaphorically is to sense something is wrong before you know what the exact problem is.
3. Rat on Somebody
To “rat on somebody” or “rat somebody out” means to inform on someone to an authority figure, such as the police, a teacher, or a parent:
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Jimmy ratted on his sister when she sneaked out after midnight.
This phrase often implies disloyalty, which seem rather unfair to the rats!
4. Rat Race
A “rat race” describes a lifestyle or activity that is exhausting and relentless:
They fled to the countryside to escape the rat race.
This phrase is often used to describe modern urban society, and especially societies with competitive work cultures, as it conjures up an image of rats racing each other to achieve or obtain something.
5. Like Rats Fleeing a Sinking Ship
When many people quickly abandon someone or something, we sometimes say they are “like rats fleeing a sinking ship”:
Once news hit, investors deserted the company like rats fleeing a sinking ship.
The phrase comes from the belief that rats could sense when a ship was going to sink. We see a similar idea in an older version of this simile – like rats fleeing a rotten house – that dates back to the early seventeenth century!
Did we miss your favorite ratty phrase? Let us know in the comments if so! And if you have any documents you’d like proofread, you can try our services for free. We’ll even check your use of idioms for you!