What Does I Smell A Rat Mean?

I Smell a Rat Meaning

Definition: Something is suspicious.

Someone will use this phrase when he or she thinks something is not quite right in a situation. Usually, the person doesn’t know what is wrong exactly. Rather, he or she has a general sense or feeling of suspicion.

Origin of I Smell a Rat

Although the exact origin is unknown, this expression saw its first use in the 1800s. It is unclear how it developed, but rats often hold a negative connotation, in both a literal and figurative sense.

Literally speaking, rats are smelly nuisances that carry infections and diseases. Figuratively speaking, a rat is someone who is a snitch or a government informant of some kind.

If you smell a rat, you sense something suspicious about someone in your crew. Perhaps someone is working with the government to turn you in—or there is a coup planned to overtake you.

Examples of I Smell a Rat

phrase to smell a ratIn the first example, two friends are discussing recent unemployment.

Marcus: I’ve been applying to jobs for a while now, and no one will hire me. I don’t know what’s wrong!

Patsy: Maybe you aren’t making a great impression at your interviews. We could do a mock interview if you think that would help.

Marcus: Actually, the interviews have gone great! At a few of them, they told me I would probably get the job. All they had to do was contact my references.

Patsy: Hm. I smell a rat. Who did you list as your references?

Marcus: John, Jacob, and Smith. Why?

Patsy: You have to remove Jacob. He always gives people terrible references. That’s your problem right there.

meaning of to smell a ratIn the second example, two siblings who are discussing their food purchases use the idiom.

Angela: What happened to all the holiday chocolate I bought?

Samson: Oh, didn’t you hear? Mom got really hungry and ate it all.

Angela: That’s strange. Mom is allergic to chocolate. I smell a rat.

Samson: Now that you mention it, I think it was Dad who ate it.

Angela: I think you stole my chocolate!

Samson: I’m sorry! I couldn’t help it!

More Examples

In this article excerpt, a person who thinks there is something politically suspicious going on uses the idiom.

  • “How is it we expend taxpayer money, at a request the village pay for the law firm, and it doesn’t even come back to the village which is footing the bill?” Michels asked. “So to take the statement from another board member, I smell a rat.” –Chicago Tribune

In the excerpt below, the idiom is used in a quote from a man explaining that his workers know how to spot something suspicious.

  • That familiarity, Acheson said, reduces the possibility that importing companies “lab shop” until they get positive test results. In those instances, he said, “Our guys would probably smell a rat.” –Chicago Tribune


The phrase I smell a rat is an expression that is used to tell others that something is amiss.