Aw, Rats!

The rat metaphor gets dissected. Ew!

Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich pressed the right levers on the Observatory’s feed control panel, turning our scope downwards for the first time ever. In case you were tidying the bomb shelter, the Sucker State’s has-been lion has been bagged by rat catchers for soliciting bribes after several incriminating recordings were made by investigators. Apparently he forgot to pay the piper.

Yesterday, the Gov visited laid-off workers at the Republic Windows and Doors plant who’d raised a twelve-foot rat to symbolize greedy bankers. Maybe rats were on people’s minds after a rat crashed the Chicago Crime Commission awards night in November. Maybe there’s more to it than just rats.

2008 was the Year of the Rat – that is, the Chinese Year of the Rat. While North Americans and Europeans find the rat repugnant, China regards it as a bringer of prosperity. Western culture points to the rat’s low position and filthy living environment as cause for contempt: down and dirty. The “Year of the Rat” brand turned out more appropriate for export.

The rat is never lonely in da’ basement. Cockroach, weasel, worm, pig, maggot and other animates join their less-lively-therefore-less-threatening-therefore-lower-priority organic counterparts pond scum, rotten, trash and dirt. Among the inorganic underlings we enjoy sewer, gutter and toilet/potty, primarily as a source, often referring to one’s humour or conversation. And though we pay homage to those things underfoot, we are not so limited to one conceptual version of under.

The metaphors-most-vulgar can be below the belt, such as the many, many genetalia and eliminative-based metaphors. They may be intellectually or professionally beneath us, such as jackass, idiot, coconut donkey or whore. It may be economic, being nearly worthless, as in two-bit, chintzy, dime-store or cheap, or from an economic status, such as trailer-trash, third-rate or lower-class. Pick a language, culture or era, and you’ll inevitably find this class of metaphor.

Crime and sin have long been associated with these low things. Underworld is generally tied to crime and netherworld is tied to sin, though colleague outlaw gangs Hell’s Angels and Satan’s Choice blur the distinction between crime, sin and below. Given that “angel” implies animacy and “Satan’s Choice” indicates subordination, we get the semantic notions of lower and living from which many metaphors are born. Factoring in that darkness and evil are joined at the primal-brain’s hip, we get the lowly creatures of the shadows we all love to hate. Given that the sporty Blagojevich’s underground actions contradicted his position of high trust, his new nickname was inevitable.

After charges were laid, the due-process disobeyin’ semidemigod denied everything. Plagued by scoopsters while crawling out of a taxi, Blago politely bristled at the notion of being caged, claiming entrapment. From higher ground, it sounded more like “You dirty rats, I’ll never Sing Sing”.


This class of unwelcome metaphors, used to describe a figure that we dislike, draws on our negative feelings towards some other object (See: The Griswald Example). Inevitably, to evoke such feelings is to evoke regional neurochemistries. We’d be wise to repel these things, and so we should chemically prepare for battle (perhaps this explains the army’s use of maggot or grunt, as shouted at a trainee). Compare this to terms of endearment such as honey, sugar or sweetie, which draw on pleasant, intimate, welcome sensory experiences (in this case food). Certainly under these conditions, one is more prone to receptiveness, which we can expect to see in the brain’s regional neurochemistries. Research from this year points to a similar relationship between physical warmth and interpersonal warmth. And we should expect many relationships like this, since, in a nutshell and at its core, the brain has little means outside regionalism to truly differentiate between cognitive, physical and emotional experiences. When someone calls us a bad name, we think, we feel, we hurt.

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