The Rat LanguageDecember 28th, 2010
The rat cannot speak. It can communicate – rat to rat, and in extremis rat to human and doubtless other predators – or more properly vocalise, in a series of tones and registers that mainly exist beyond human hearing. Only when, characteristically, the human brings pain to the rat, can its squeaks be heard. Perhaps it is better thus: were rats to speak, their justified charge-sheet of human cruelties, tortures and misrepresentations might even prove shameful to that one fellow creature that surpasses all others in its capacity for inflicting pain. But even could rats speak, it is unlikely that they would be heard, or if heard attended. For if rats, those quintessential denizens of the literal and metaphorical lower depths could speak, then their language would be of those depths. If rats spoke, they would not adopt the standard, privileged as it is on every level. If rats spoke, they would speak slang.
Slang is the rats’ linguistic peer. It is identified with the same depths, whether in literal origins or metaphorical image; it is down and dirty (though rats in fact are near-obsessive self-groomers), it elicits negative characterisations and misrepresentations. Linguistic puritans have wished to see it wiped out, removed from speech. Like the rat it is associated with the gutter. Perhaps, as is proclaimed of the rat, there is always a slang talker within 8 (or is it 28) feet of the speaker of standard English, threatening linguistic pollution and disease to the pure of phoneme.
There are positives on both sides, but they are not generally proclaimed. Like slang the rat is inventive, intelligent. It seems pragmatic, as is slang: why would anyone but a benighted, self-propagandised captain remain on a sinking ship? And like slang, and through millennia of bitter experience, the rat surely sees the world as it is.
There are other parallels. Like the rat, slang finds sex to be a central preoccupation. A pair of rats, if left to themselves, and that unlikely kindness extended to their offspring, could in theory produce 22,000 more rats in a year. And they in turn, paired off… Like rats slang can be ephemeral: words come and go, only the over-riding themes – criminality, sex, money, intoxication (and one can be drunk as a rat), vilifications of various sorts – are immutable and eternally reproducing themselves in a lexis of inventive synonymy. The street rat lives perhaps a year, or a little more; though its domesticated, petted cousins can thrive for three times as long. But as we know, there is always the essential theme: the rat.
Slang is, of course, as guilty of damning its animal coeval as any. There are 14 columns of rat, plus rat-based derivatives, compounds and phrases, in my dictionary. None of the words on offer are complimentary. Every one takes as its root an image of the rat that does not equate to the animal’s actual, natural characteristics.
The basic definitions run as follows. Those based on misrepresentation: an unpleasant person; one who changes allegiance out of self-interest; an informer; a worker who undercuts standards established by unionised labour; one who is cunning and deceitful; a street urchin; a thieving prisoner; an incompetent. It is unsurprising that in the Nazi demonology the Jew was equated with the rat. Only two are at best neutral: a bus inspector and an enthusiast. But that is not all. The rat can be a clergyman (‘Rats. Of these there are the following kinds, a black rat and a grey rat, a py-rat and a cu-rat’. Thus the lexicographer Francis Grose in 1788). It can be a drunkard who has been arrested and taken to the cells (especially after breaking street lamps); thus the Rat’s Castle, the long vanished Poultry Counter prison. There are Australian rats based on the emotions, meaning tetchiness, bad temper or madness; also a hangover or delirium tremens and thus ratty, in a bad mood. There are those sourced from the creature’s fur: a hair-pad with tapering ends used to underpin the elaborate pompadour hairstyles affected by women in the 1890s; it can mean a wig; Rat, like cat and pussy, can be the female genitals, while a recent use denotes a promiscuous, attractive woman (which may or may not take us back to the French rat, a young woman, particularly a young ballet dancer aged 7–14 and cited as a young whore in Balzac’s A Harlot High and Low (1839–47).
There is a final equation: like slang rats traditionally require humans for existence. Symbiosis. No humans, with their edible by-products, no rats. No human psyche, with its essential traits of greed, lust, anger, xenophobia, misogyny, self-aggrandisement and violent antipathy, no slang. Both species, we may assume, will continue. And it is unlikely that their relations will improve. But if by chance – or more likely the urge to self-destruction – the human dies, so too must slang. The rat, bereft of humans but with an abundance of their own remains and the leavings of their society on offer, may inherit the earth.