Don't rat out your friends! 13 mouse and rat idioms to help your writing shine


Our favourite rodent phrases will add colour and personality to your stories

Karly Cox |

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These phrases about rats and mice will surely make your writing more interesting!

To celebrate the Year of the Rat, here are some idioms and phrases about the whiskered rodents (and their cousins the mouse) to help your writing shine!

To smell a rat

Meaning: to suspect that something is dishonest or not right 

In use: The new student claimed he was a prince, but when I saw him taking the minibus home, I began to smell a rat.

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To rat on someone/rat somebody out

Meaning: to tell on someone or “snitch”; to tell an authority figure about something bad that someone has done

In use: Bob had planned to play a trick on the teacher, but Jamie ratted on him/ratted him out, and the teacher gave Bob detention.

Look like a drowned rat

Meaning: to look soaking wet and uncomfortable

In use: Aunt Siu-yee wouldn’t let us back in the flat after we were caught in the storm because we looked like a pair of drowned rats.

The rat race

Meaning: an unpleasant, overly competitive way of life in which people compete with each other for power and money, and have no time to enjoy themselves

In use: Most Hongkongers find themselves in the rat race because jobs such as banking and law are viewed as the ultimate career aspiration.

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Oh, rats!

Meaning: used to express annoyance

Use: Oh, rats! I left my wallet in the taxi!

Like rats leaving/abandoning a sinking ship

Meaning: refers to people leaving a company or place very quickly and in large numbers when a problem develops

In use: When they found out they had to spend money on a  new uniform, the tennis club members quit like rats leaving a sinking ship.

Lab rat

Meaning: literally, a rat used by scientists for research, so they can run tests on an animal instead of a human; but it can also refer to someone who spends all their time in a laboratory, such a student or scientist, and has no time for other interests
The term can also be applied to other places, for example, the mall (mall rat) or the gym (gym rat)

In use: Professor Lam is such a lab rat; he spends so much time in there, he forgot to pick up his son from school!

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Play cat and mouse with someone

Meaning: to be in an unsettling relationship, where one person is being chased by the other

In use: By publicly announcing the diamond exhibition and setting up undercover officers, the cops were playing cat and mouse with the jewel thieves.

When the cat’s away, the mice will play

Meaning: when the person in authority is not there, other people will not behave well

In use: Mrs Fong is leaving a trainee teacher in charge while she’s on holiday, but you know while the cat’s away, the mice will play. The students won’t behave! 

As quiet as a mouse

Meaning: very quiet, and/or shy. (If you’ve ever heard a mouse, though, you’ll know its squeaking can be quite loud relative to its size!)

In use: The kindergarten children were as quiet as mice, so immediately I wondered if something was wrong with them.

As poor as a church mouse

Meaning: very poor. Some sources suggest the phrase was originally “hungry as a church mouse”, because it was unlikely there would be any food in a church, so any creature living there would be starving

In use: My six-week tour of Australia was amazing, but now I’m poor as a church mouse. I’ll have to get a part-time job.

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Mickey mouse

Meaning: not as good as you think it should be

In use: Beatrice said the photography course was run by a Mickey-mouse organisation, and she didn’t learn anything.

The best-laid plans of mice and men

Meaning: even the most carefully prepared plans can go wrong. This proverb comes from a Scottish poem, and the full saying is “The best laid plans of mice often go awry”.

In use: I meant to get up early and go for a hike, but the  best-laid plans of mice and men: my alarm clock didn’t go off.