A feeling that something is not quite right. This phrase might be used when a person feels suspicious, especially of another person.
Example: “Hey, Jim, I feel like things have been disappearing around the office lately. Have you noticed this too?”
“Yeah, now that you mention it, my ballpoint pen is missing! It was on my desk this morning. I smell a rat; I think that Parker guy is taking stuff that doesn’t belong to him. Keep an eye on him, will ya?”
In other words, these two workers feel like something isn’t right at the office; someone is stealing from the job, and Jim has suspicions that a man named Parker is involved.
The Origin Of ‘I Smell a Rat’
For centuries, one way that the word “smell” has been used is to describe a suspicious feeling someone has. Let’s look at an example; this one comes from an English poet you may have heard about before, William Shakespeare. In a play called King Lear (which is believed to have been written around the early 17th century), he wrote:
“Do you smell a fault? “
Another example would be a similar expression that goes “something smells fishy.” And then of course, there’s the phrase, “I smell a rat.” They all pretty much mean the same thing: Something feels wrong.
So, how did this idiom originate? Well, it probably has something to do with dead rats.
Yeah, gross, but here’s why:
Rats are pretty cool creatures, but when they crawl underneath your house or they find their way into the walls of your home, they become way less cool. Especially if they die in those locations, then they become a problem. A smelly problem.
You see, some home owners have dealt with this issue before. A rat dies somewhere in the house unbeknownst to the owner, and then a few days later, the rat’s corpse starts to stink. The home owner begins noticing the strange odor, but they don’t entirely know what it is or where the smell is coming from. They just know that something doesn’t smell right.
Later, they find the dead rat and realize that the “off smell” was actually coming from a dead rodent. Yes, they were “smelling a rat.” Perhaps, then, this stinky situation is how the idiom originated and how it got its meaning of “something doesn’t feel/smell right.”
This, however, cannot be confirmed for sure. Anyways, with that out of the way, let’s talk about how old this phrase is:
Its possible that it goes back to the 18th century. For instance, it’s said that Patrick Henry used the saying at some point in his life. He lived from the years 1736 to 1799, so the expression is at least that old.
“Did you end up buying that red truck you were talking about earlier?”
“No, I didn’t. I was thinking about buying it, but the person selling it didn’t seem trustworthy. I smelled a rat, so I decided to pass on the offer. I’ll be looking elsewhere.”
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 clearer this time. Is clearer even a word? I think it is. Anyways, thanks for reading!