What does a rat even smell like? Well, I have no idea … even though I’ve seen a rat or two in my lifetime (Hey, was anyone else reminded of Ratatouille when I said that? The movie, not the recipe).
Absurd as this may sound (Because, can anyone really smell a rat?), using the idiom I smell a rat (which, in other words, may be referring to someone as a “dirty rat”) raises the curtain on you as you take center stage as both judge and jury.
The associated “smell” of this idiom is one of dishonesty, treachery or even downright deceit. It smack’s of trickery, tomfoolery, greed or even the evil deeds of someone or something that is up to no good. Sometimes there is almost nothing good to say about someone who “smells like a rat,” except perhaps to say that their mother loves them. This idiom is associated with something or someone that may seem barely redeemable (and I do believe that almost every person and every situation is redeemable in some way).
So, saying this may mean that I am, perhaps, discerning. I may have the wisdom that accompanies my crown of grey hair, or I may have the life experience that alerts me to someone’s antics or devilish ways. At worst, it may expose me as being cynical or judgmental.
A version of this idiom was made famous in James Cagney’s 1932 film Taxi, though I must confess I was disappointed when I listened to the clip. I wanted him to say, “You rat. You dirty rat!” and not “You dirty yellow-bellied rat.” But close enough. Imagine being called that … oh, the shame of it all … to be exposed like that, to be equated with a long-tailed rodent with a disease-carrying history. Oh, despicable!
Needless to say, at this point (even though I’m going to say it), calling someone a “rat” or “a dirty rat” or declaring that they “smell like a rat” would be one of the worst things imaginable and you might want to duck and run very shortly thereafter.
It’s true that I may have encountered such a person at least once in my lifetime. And I can think of one or two world leaders that may have earned such a title. Still, perhaps I am too nice because I do believe, as I have said, that there is something redeemable about even the most undeserving of individuals. I embrace this belief when it comes to humanity: Imago Dei, Latin for “image of God.” That belief has kept me from launching my own “rat attacks.”
Back to the original question at the beginning of this column. Yes, Virginia, rats do smell. They are pungent and musky. Mice, though? Mice are nice. (Okay, I’m totally kidding … they’re only nice when they are where you want them to be.) I have a mouse beanbag (stuffed with rice), so mice are a little more endearing, to my way of thinking.
For all of you rat lovers, out there, I hope you get the humour here, along with the seriousness of the idiom, and know that no rats were harmed during the writing of this column—at least not at our house.