Thursday, October 17, 2013

Thursday Trivia: I Smell a Rat

If one “smells a rat,’ he or she suspects that matters may not be as innocent as they appear on the surface. And the origins aren’t as clear as we’d like them to appear either.

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
"Say What!"
Henry Chettle, author Patient Grissil (#15 in list of plays)


  1. No rats here...thank God but we have been known to hunt mice. Have a tremendous Thursday.
    Best wishes Molly

  2. Hmmm... Do you know what? I have never smelled a rat. Not a 'real' rat, anyway. I have been known to be suspicious of the peeps, now and then. In fact, just yesterday...


  3. Alfie couldn't smell a rat if it was under his nose.BOL have a super Thurzday xxoxx

    Mollie and Alfie

  4. I haven't smelled any rats here! Or mice even.

  5. The closest we had to a rat or a mouse was a hamster. Knut escaped from his cage one night and Mommy found him covered in saliva in the kitchen next to Cosmo. He wasn't harmed in any way...just needed a good bath. :)

  6. SMELL a rat! Well I have to LIVE with one.
    An orange one with sticky pink paws.
    ; ) Katie

    So we didn't answer your question... It's hard to say.
    At first we'd think it originated with dogs, since dogs get into WAY more trouble than cats. But they're also terrible liars. Cats win paws down when it comes to lying and deceit.

  7. We've never see a real rat. But we are excellent mice catchers. The last to bring one in the house was Mauricio. We shared about it in a post. The mice we catch are just little field mice. Cat vs dog? Dog people say dog. Cat people say cat. Same old story. Purrs and hugs, Lily Olivia, Mauricio, Misty May, Giulietta, Fiona, Astrid, Lisbeth and Calista Jo

  8. I can´t smell any Rat over here , but I sure can smell mousies that I can´t catch :(

  9. We've never seen a rat, only big bugs (we live in Florida, where the bugs are the size of rats).

  10. I think I would enjoy sniffing a rat. I have to be happy with our Plague Rat toy.

  11. We don't know what to say...any of us...we can't get past Faraday's blue eyes...such a gorgeous photo of him!

    the critters in the cottage xo

    P.S. The dogs say they could smell a rat...they cats say, they could kill a rat! It's a team effort over here :)

  12. Faraday we were spellbound by your photograph!

  13. I tried to "make friends" with a chinchilla once. That long twitchy tail was so enticing. I'm not sure about a rat....long tail but not nearly as cute.


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