As we have just entered into the Chinese Year of the Rat, we thought we’d take a closer look at the phrases and literature surrounding the rambunctious rodents from the genus Rattus.
Many of you will recoil with horror at the mention of rats, because of the bad press they have had for years. A stereotypical rat is dirty, disloyal and generally a nasty little creature that will take over your home and spread disease, given half a chance. Rats are generally despised, spread plagues and are never far away from any human habitat.
As well as being a rodent, rat is also described in the dictionary as ‘a despicable person, especially a man who has been deceitful or disloyal; an informer; a person associated with frequenting a specified place, eg a mall rat.’
As a verb, to rat is to hunt and kill rats or to desert one’s party or cause. To rat on is to inform on someone and a ratbag is an unpleasant or disliked person. A rathole is a cramped or squalid room or building and rat’s tails are strands of lank, damp or greasy hair. The rat race is a way of life in which people are caught up in a fiercely competitive struggle for wealth or power and a rat pack is a group of journalists and photographers who pursue celebrities in a relentless or aggressive way, or a slang term for a group of hard-drinking pals, such as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr.
But do rats get a fair deal? People who have pet rats say they are affectionate, loyal and clean. In Chinese culture, rats are considered a symbol of good luck and people born in the year of the rat are expected to possess qualities associated with rats such as honesty, generosity and ambition while being clever, quick-witted and quick-tempered.
There are good rats in literature. Ratty, the water rat in Wind In The Willows, spends his days on the river, messing about in boats. Rat teaches Mole the ways of the river.
Master Splinter, who mentors the Mutant Ninja Turtles, is a kind and wise rat who meditates as well as looking after his turtle charges.
Desert rats was the nickname of the British 7th Armoured Division that defeated Rommel at the Battle of El Alamein in WWII and rat trap is slang for dangerous rental housing. A rug rat is a small child and to smell a rat is to suspect trickery or deception. A rat’s nest is a messy hairstyle, looking like a drowned rat is looking drenched and bedraggled, especially from being caught in the rain and like rats abandoning a sinking ship describes people leaving a situation in a mass movement, indicating imminent destruction. Apparently, you can always tell when the ship is sinking because the rats are leaving. The rats occupy the lower bilge levels, where the water would appear first, thus alerting them first and starting the rodent evacuation.
So stop ratting around and get stuck into our crossword & puzzle magazines. It’s too late to rat out!