First, there’s the matter of experts disagreeing about who did the smelling: was it a cat or a dog?
|Terrier scenting a rat to "hunt". |
(no one was harmed in the "hunt")
Photo via ezz_eddie
According to an old and venerable volume on etymology written in 1869 by William Blackley, the phrase is a mistranslation of an old German saying: unrath wittern, roughly meaning ‘I scent mischief’ was changed to eine ratte wittern, “ I smell a rat”.
Blackley’s contemporary, Abram Smythe Palmer, believed that the colloquialism referred to a rat terrier who has scented his prey.: “it is quite sufficient to account for the phrase,” he writes, “and it needs no other explanation.”
Everyone’s entitled to his or her opinion, of course, but we wanted to dig a bit deeper and see if there were other explanations, or if Palmer truly did have the final word on the matter!
Robert Hendrickson, author of Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, believed it to be a cat who scented the rodent. Regardless of which side you choose, the phrase has been around for quite a while (and we suspect, so has the dog/cat debate).
Which brings us to the second issue: just how old is the phrase? Many think its first modern use was in a newspaper in the mid-1800’s:
"Two other cases the witness mentioned, in the first of which he alleged that the judge, in reference to an insufficiency of evidence said, 'I smell a rat; I don't believe the defendant or her witness.'"
But we found another record that dates just a wee bit farther back: in a British comedy called “Patient Grissil,” first performed in December of 1599, to be precise. In the play one of the characters, a fellow by the name of Babulo, said: “Whoop! Whither is my brother basket-maker gone? Ha! Let me see: I smell a rat.”
Faraday wants you to know that he’s certain he’d be able to suss out any rats that dared show a whisker inside our domain.
How about yours? Any juicy rat-hunting stories?
And – poll time! Are they from cats or dogs?
Word gossip: a series of familiar essays, William Lewery Blackley, Oxford University, 1869.
Folk-etymology: A Dictionary of Verbal Corruptions Or Words Perverted in Form Or Meaning, by False Derivation Or Mistaken Analogy, by Abram Smythe Palmer, George Bell & Sons, 1882.
Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, Robert Hendrickson, 1987. Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable
Patient Grissil, act iv. Sc.2 (December, 1599, published 1603) Public Domain.
The County Courts Chronicle: Volumes 2717-2721 of Early English newspapers, J. Crockford, 1852.
Know Your Phrase
The Free Dictionary: Idioms
Henry Chettle, author Patient Grissil (#15 in list of plays)