I smell a rat meaning
“I smell a rat” is an idiom and like most idioms, it is not to be taken literally. The person using this expression is not in fact noticing the odour of a rodent of any kind. What they are really saying is that they suspect something is wrong or isn’t how it should be.
I smell a rat meanings include –
You think something is wrong.
You suspect you have been betrayed or tricked.
You sense that somebody caused a problem.
You don’t trust something or someone.
I smell a rat example sentences
The police smell a rat in the death of the salesman, they don’t think it was an accident.
He smelt a rat in the business deal and decided not to sign the contract.
She smelled a rat when she drove past his office. He said he was working late but there were no lights on in the building.
When she looked in her bag she smelt a rat, after looking through it she saw her purse had been stolen.
The gang smelt a rat and decided not to rob the bank because they thought someone in their group was a police informant.
Note – When using both the past simple or past participle, North America prefers to use smelled. In the UK, smelt is more common.
Idioms with a similar meaning
Interestingly, fish is another pungent stink that is used in a similar idiom. If something is fishy or smells fishy, it isn’t quite right or is suspicious and you don’t trust it.
A person who is a rat is a snitch or informant who betrays their friends. This is commonly used in crime when people rat someone out to the police or authorities and talk about their crimes.
Another way to say something is dubious or a person is untrustworthy is to say they are shady.
If you stab someone in the back, you betray them and their trust. This can also be said as double-crossing somebody.
The origin of I smell a rat
It is unclear exactly where this particular idiom comes from but there are a few different ideas that all make sense. It seems to have originated in the 1800s when rats were much more common in cities and towns compared to modern times. There is also some evidence it came about in the 1500s, the roots of the idiom really are quite unclear.
Some sources say that the idiom simply alludes to a cat finding the scent of a mouse and sniffing it out. The phrase appears in the poem “The Image of Ipocrysy” written in 1540 where it is used idiomatically. Here it involves a cat although in this case, the cat is a metaphor for clergy. It also features in Thomas Deloney’s “The honour of the gentle craft” again with a cat. This was written in the late 1500s.
A similar idea is that it came from people using terriers that were used to hunt and control rats in the early 1800s. Rat hunting with dogs, particularly terriers, is still practised to this day.
Terriers are extremely good at this, so much so that in the Victorian era it became a gambling sport. In “rat baiting” dogs were put into small arenas or pits full of rats. Bets were placed on how much time it would take the hound to kill the rodents or how many it slew. The last public rat baiting competition in the UK was held in 1912.
Another notion is that the I smell a rat meaning comes from the actual stench of a dead rat that cannot be found. If this has ever happened in your home, you can relate to this. A dead rat makes a horrible stink yet can’t be found if it is hidden in walls. Your nose knows there is a problem even if you can’t see it with your eyes.