by Hugh Gilmore
It seems like only yesterday, but it’s been three weeks since a prominent local citizen called this newspaper a “rathole.” Correction: a “content rathole.” An infelicitous phrase, to say the least.
A flurry of support for the newspaper followed, including many letters to the editor. Some of the writers demanded a retraction. Some demanded an apology. And others, still, turned to the person next to them and said, “What the heck’s a rathole?” No explanation has been offered. The sphinx remains silent. The public remains puzzled. A disquiet air permeates the town. This columnist has volunteered to step forward and bell the rat.
The first thing to be noted is the word “rat.” No one likes being compared to a rat-anything. Rats’ historical relationship to mankind has always been bad. They spread disease, destroy our food, invade and weaken our homes, and threaten to burn our houses down by chewing on the electric wires. Plus they’re dirty, smelly, ill-tempered, cannibalistic, skulking and nocturnal. Humans trust almost nothing nocturnal (especially their fellow Homo sapiens).
Among the diseases rats spread are typhoid fever and the plague, acting as transporters for the fleas and lice in which those germs live. (A genuinely readable classic in this field is Hans Zinsser’s “Rats, Lice and History,” 1935.)
There are two principal rat species in this part of North America, the black rat (Rattus rattus) and the brown rat (Rattus norvegicus) – aka the Norway rat, the name supposedly a slander by the English against the Norwegians). The black rat was once wider in its distribution, but wherever the two overlap in range, the brown rat becomes dominant. It is also known as the “sewer rat.” Their preferred habitat is damp and dark. Rats may be arboreal or terrestrial. In Hawaii, among other places, people shield many of their trees to keep rats from climbing up and nesting. In the Philadelphia area most rats nest underground.
In a classic description from 1898, “Full Revelations of a Professional Rat-catcher After 25 Years’ Experience,” by Ike Matthews, we learn, “The damage the Rats will do is enormous, and not so much by what they actually eat as by what they carry away – often ten times as much as they eat. I have often proved this when ferreting at a wholesale grocery warehouse. When we have taken up the boards between the laths and plaster we have found the ceiling almost full of lump sugar, nuts, candles, etc., which have been there for years, hoarded by the Rats. This all means heavy loss. Any business man so suffering ought to engage the services of a professional Rat-catcher once a year in order to keep the Rats down.” (Full text available online as a Project Gutenberg ebook.)
Back to our linguistic inquiry: It seems reasonable to assume that a rathole is simply the entrance to a rat nest. The things a rat harvests (or steals, from a human point of view) go down the hole, get placed in the nest, and are lost forever to the farmer.
But again, what did our outspoken board member mean? Was he suggesting that the editorial, production, advertising and support staff of the Chestnut Hill Local are rats?
Excuse me, “content rats”? They steal content (news items? ideas?) and slip them down a rat hole? No, that doesn’t make any sense. He must have meant something else. Perhaps that expression, “rathole” is not unique to him and is an idiom one can’t understand by analyzing its parts. A trip to onelook.com would be in order.
This website’s homepage contains a list of 1061 dictionaries and glossaries, some of them quite obscure. A search blank allows you to type in the word you’re looking for and get responses from all relevant dictionaries.
For example, The Urban Dictionary spells the term “rat-hole” and defines it thusly: “To digress in an extensive way. To divert the conversation to an unrelated topic that will probably lead nowhere.” Merriam-Webster: “Rathole: a seemingly bottomless or unfillable hole.” Example: “His last money went down the rathole as he tried to save his friend from bankruptcy.” Dictionary.com echoes this definition, using the full expression, “down the rathole” to mean “for a worthless purpose, or purposes: seeing your inheritance go down the rathole.”
Not pleasant. Let us go to one of the Internet’s little-known gems: Wordwizard.com. Resident here are many learned amateur (for the most part) language buffs. They conduct several forums on linguistic topics. If you register (I have, and I’ve never, in five years, received an unwanted email, solicitation or advertisement related to this site – it is clean), you can enter a query and receive responses from their experts, sometimes within minutes.
I typed in the following request in the “word origins and expressions forum”:
A member of the board that governs the newspaper I freelance for (The Chestnut Hill Local, Philadelphia, Pa.. USA) refused to vote to renew our budget. He claimed that the newspaper was “a content rat hole.” And therefore losing advertisers.
Many folks in our community are puzzled by this expression, “rathole,” never having heard it before. Some among them were upset. Does anyone know its historic origins?
Yours in rodentia,
Luckily, one of the Wordwizard stalwarts, the capo de regime, himself, Ken Greenwald, responded. Ken is a retiree living in Fort Collins, Col. Ken can do. He replied in three separate phases. Most interestingly, he distinguished between rathole as a noun and as a verb.
As a noun, the historical samplings from the Oxford English Dictionary range from 1863 to 2014. Nearly all refer to wasting money or assets. For example, from The Economist (U.S. April, 2010): “Bankers regarded the ‘third world’ as little more than the financial equivalent of a rat hole.” Is the Local a third-world country?
Used as a verb, The Oxford Dictionaries define rathole as a North American … informal expression meaning “to hide money or goods as a means of fraud or deception.” … For example, in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” by Jordan Belfort (2007), the author writes, “As of now he owed me almost $2 million in back profits from having ratholed new issues for me.”(p.146). The movie version of this memoir offers lines like, “How do you say rathole in British?” (Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan, to his wife’s conniving English aunt.)
Ken Greenwald offered a number of quotes from “archived sources,” the earliest coming from the noir crime writer Jim Thompson. A well-known sample would be this, from his book-to-movie “The Grifters” (1963): “Secretly, in the way of many wives – although she was not legally his wife – she had been rat-holing money for years.” The more modern samples show that the word’s verb form has generalized to mean anything hidden, or “squirreled” away in an informal or surreptitious – but not necessarily illegal – manner. If interested, you can go to the site and this forum and follow the full contents of our interchange.
In sum, I say to those confused citizens among our readership that our budget-rattling representative was using the noun form of the word rat hole to describe this paper. And not the verb form. He meant we were wasting the association’s money. Thus I conclude this one-man committee’s report to the board.
Why our appointed board member chose to use an expression with the word “rat” in it remains a mystery.
Hugh is the author of “Scenes from a Bookshop,” available in print and Kindle formats from Amazon.com.