Virtually everyone who speaks English has used the phrase “rat race” to describe the pace of modern life, but few people understand how the term came into being. Many people inside and outside of the swampy bottoms of the DC Beltway would agree that, indeed, Washington is even more of a rat race these days than usual.
As with many phrases in the English language, once you understand the origins, the meaning becomes even more delightful.
Back in the epoch of Medieval plagues, one of the many epidemics that swept Europe was not only carried by rats, but it also infected them. The rodents were first affected by extreme thirst, then hunger, then disorientation, then extreme fatigue. As a rat reached the final stage it would fall down, helpless, just lying wherever it had fallen.
Pretty soon another rat, perhaps just in the first stages of the disease, would happen by and, seeing its fellow furry compadre totally helpless and looking delicious, would settle down to dine.
Rats being rats, the morsel of choice was the anus of the poor creature lying helpless, and so as brother (or sister) rat began gnawing at its tender parts, the first rat would begin to inch along, trying to escape the teeth burrowing from behind.
But soon, since rat #2 was also sick and disoriented even while dining, rat #3 would happen by and – voila – the feast would begin anew at the hind end of rat #2.
So now we would have three rats, each concentrating on eating the juicy anus of the one in front while trying to escape being eaten from behind.
While the spectacle would most often grow to resemble a bloody little Conga line, occasionally a full circle would form. Needless to say, this sight would attract human spectators and, people being the creatures that they are, bets would be placed on which rat would be the ultimate survivor. Or, rather, which rat would die last, since there were never any actual survivors. So, while there was no announcer to cry “And they’re off”, this everyday sporting event in the streets of London quickly came to be called a “Rat Race”.
Charming, no? And how appropriate that this is the phrase of choice to describe the activities of the creatures of the Beltway swamp.
Gentlemen (and ladies) – place your bets. My bet is on the rodent with the orange fur.
When I was a child I moved around the world with my military family, always traveling by ship in the days before aircraft could cross oceans. I would spend hours on deck writing messages, sealing them with candle wax in bottles I snagged from somewhere on board, and then consigning them to the sea knowing in my heart that they were on their way to someone, somewhere who would read them. Sometime replies arrived at my grandparents’ house years later, and they would forward them to me wherever I was living. From these contacts I developed pen-pals who I stayed in touch with for many years. I was fortunate to develop, very early in my life, a sense of the network that invisibly but seamlessly connects us all. Thank you for picking up this message in a bottle, dear reader. We are here together.