When someone says the phrase “I smell a rat” it means they feel something is not quite right. They may feel suspicious of a situation or of another person.
Example: Things have been going missing around the workplace lately. Office supplies, food, and more have all disappeared. Jim believes that Parker is responsible for the recent thefts, so he tells his workmates:
“I smell a rat and I think it’s Parker. He was hired a few weeks ago and that’s when everything started to vanish. Keep an eye on him.”
Synonyms/Related: something smells fishy, something smells off, suspicious
The Origin Of ‘I Smell a Rat’
For centuries, one way that the word “smell” has been used is to describe a suspicious feeling that someone has. For example, in the play King Lear, which was written around the early 17th century, William Shakespeare wrote:
“Do you smell a fault? “
Today, people commonly use the expressions “(something) smells fishy” or “I smell a rat” to describe their suspicions. For this page, we will be focusing on the origin of the latter. Yes, where did this saying come from? Well, it probably has to do with dead rats, and here’s why:
Rats are cool creatures, but when they crawl underneath your house or they find their way into the walls of your home, they can become a problem. This is especially true if the rat dies while in one of those locations, because then the stench of their rotting corpse will enter the home.
Such a smell is unpleasant for the homeowners because even though they’re aware of the foul odor in the air, they may not be able to pinpoint what’s causing it. They just know that something doesn’t smell right.
Later, they find the dead rat and realize that the off-putting smell was actually coming from a dead rodent. Yes, they were “smelling a rat.” Thus, perhaps this stinky situation is how the idiom originated and how it got its meaning of “something doesn’t feel/smell right.”
Anyways, as for this saying’s earliest known appearance: The earliest I could find it in print is from the newspaper The World Fashionable Advertiser, 1787:
“Sly strokes at Ministers—I smell a rat.”
- I was going to buy a used car today, but the person selling it did not seem trustworthy. I smelled a rat, so I left.
- Should I trust this email? It says I won an all paid trip to Hawaii, but something smells fishy here.
Note: Psst! Hey, person reading this. I wanna tell you something. The origin of some phrases and sayings cannot be said with a certainty, kinda like this one. So what’s provided in such cases are explanations that, while it may sound plausible to how a phrase originated, it may not actually be the case.
Usually I make that clear when I write about the idiom, but I guess I’m just being extra clear here. Anyways, thanks for reading.