rat hole / rathole

Discuss word origins and meanings.
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rat hole / rathole

Post by incarnatus est » Thu Apr 17, 2014 11:26 pm


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, "rat hole," never having heard it before. Some among them were upset. Does anyone know its historic origins?

Yours in rodentia,


Re: rat hole / rathole

Post by Ken Greenwald » Fri Apr 18, 2014 5:59 am

Hugh, Here are the relevant definitions from several dictionaries:


1) [1863] (North American): A seemingly bottomless pit. Chiefly figurative (especially, in down the rathole and variants): an uncontrolled drain on money or resources. (Oxford English Dictionary)

2) (North American, informal)” Used to refer to the waste of money or resources: <pouring our assets down the rathole of military expenditure.> (OxfordDictionaries.com)

3) A seemingly bottomless or unfillable hole [[pit]] <his last pile of money went down the rathole when he tried to save an old friend from bankruptcy.> (Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary

4) Anything thought of as a waste of money or resources. (Collins American English Dictionary)


For a worthless purpose or purposes: <Seeing your inheritance disappear down the rathole.> (Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary)

So, the rathole may be viewed as a hole – a money sink, a bottomless pit – down which money and resources may be poured without providing any positive results. I’ve never tried to fill any ratholes, so I can’t vouch for how difficult it is. Although it doesn’t seem to make that much sense – how hard could it be to fill a rathole? But it seems that it must have caused some folks some aggravation or it probably would not have taken on the meaning it has. In my neck of the woods we have prairie dog holes and I know that filling them is a futile endeavor because they either already have a connection to another hole or will dig one. Or, another way to look at this, if you consider a real rat hole – one which is not a bottomless pit – why bother throwing valuable resources to fill it when you could just use dirt?

The following quotes are from the Oxford English Dictionary and archived sources:
<1863 “We have men who will gulp more whisky than a rat-hole.”—Wisconsin Chief, 1 August, page 12/1>

<1889 “Few people . . . seem to realize the amount of money that can be wasted in a year, through the steam pipe. The proverbial ‘rat hole’ will not compare with it.”—The Manufacturer and Builder, November, page 255/3>

<1910 “We have to be certain . . . that we are not going to pour money down a rathole, when we put millions into the improvements that are contemplated.”—Bankers Magazine, January, page 74/2>

<1976 “The committee will examine . . . Minaki Lodge, the rathole in northwestern Ontario down which increasing quantities of public money seem to be disappearing.”—The Globe and Mail, 21 December, page 7/1>

<2002 “When Enron filed for bankruptcy last month, all but $2,300 of the Stevenses' retirement money vanished. ‘Right down the rat hole.’”—Washington Post (D.C.), Home edition, 20 January, a1/1>

<2006 “Borrowing to pay for the former -- a vacation, a pizza on a credit card you don't pay off -- at best makes these items much more expensive; at worst it's money down a rat hole.”—The Washington Post (D.C.), 28 May>

<2007 “Farmers in Colorado and elsewhere are just thrilled with Bush’s push for ethanol produced from corn. Of all the alternative sources of fuel, however, at least according to all the scientific studies I have read – don’t our leaders read the research? – it would be hard to come up with a worse one than corn. And encouraging and pouring research money and investment down such a rat hole makes about as much sense as our fearless leader’s surge, but at least it isn’t costing lives.”—Wordwizard, Addicts’ Corner, Bad Math , 11 July>

<2010 “Bankers regarded the ‘third world’ as little more than the financial equivalent of a rat hole.”—The Economist (U.S.), 17 April>

<2014 “I asked him why they are spending $7 billion on renewable energy projects, including $14 million on wind turbines in Alaska in a place where there was no wind... why do they continue to pour that money down a rat hole?”—States News Service, 7 March>

Ken – April 17, 2014

Re: rat hole & "Wolf of Wall Street"

Post by incarnatus est » Fri Apr 18, 2014 2:49 pm

Thanks Ken.

I wonder if anyone might comment on its use in the movie "The Wolf of Wall Street." Leonardo Di Caprio uses it to mean something like a tax dodge, or a way of hiding ill-gained assets. Specifically, in the scene in the park where he talks to his wife's English aunt (herself a conniver) and asks, "How do you say rathole in British?"

Thanks, Hugh

Re: rat hole / rathole

Post by Ken Greenwald » Sat Apr 19, 2014 3:59 am

Hugh, Here’s the quote I found from the book version where rathole is being used as a verb:
<2007 “As of now he owed me almost $2 million in back profits from having ratholed new issues for me.”—–The Wolf of Wall Street by Jordan Belfort, page 146>
Here’s what some dictionaries had to say on the verb, which seems to fit the above quote:

RATHOLE transitive verb (North American, informal): Hide (money or goods), typically as part of a fraud or deception. (OxfordDictionaries.com)

RAT-HOLE verb (U.S. [1948]): To stash something away, usually secretively. (New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English)

RATHOLE transitive verb: To surreptitiously or prematurely remove chips during a poker game. (Wiktionary)

Here’s some quotes from archived sources:
<1953 “But in the process of ‘rat-holing’ – surreptitiously palming an occasional ten or twenty – I often got away with hundreds.”—Bad Boy by J. Thompson, page 368>

<1963 “Secretly, in the way of many wives – although she was not legally his wife – she had been rat-holing money for years.”—The Grifters by J. Thompson, page 82>

<1992 “It isn't like we've taken this money and ratholed it away.”—The Business Journal, 6 April, page 1>

<1997 “In the first course of action, managers reacted to siren (negative) knowledge with anger, shock, and surprise. Those reactions led to concerted efforts to protect city officials . . . by selectively releasing results of the telephone survey and personal interviews with citizens. One manager confided that some information was simply ‘ratholed’”—Public Administration Review, Vol. 57, No. 5, September – October, page 378>

<2004 “With the Measure 30 tax vote looming, school advocates in Oregon say they are steeling themselves for its failure. . . . ‘We are feeling that it is probably going to fail,’. . . ‘I thought, maybe people will start realizing this is real, but they are still thinking, Oh they have the money ratholed away somewhere.’”— The Columbian (Vancouver, Washington) 31 January>

<2007 “He used about half of it to buy Lacey some clothes, also giving him about $80 to get his driver's license and for other expenses. Landes kept the rest of the money ratholed away for Lacey's future needs.”—McClatchy - Tribune Business News (Washington, D.C.), 13 March, page 1>

<2012 “. . . I am and an incurable collector, confronted with an amazingly detailed array of creations that I have painstakingly rat-holed over the years.”—Waging Heavy Peace Deluxe by Neal Young>

<2013 “When Henry finished up with the Sergeant Major’s morning jog . . . , he showered and went on up to the office to start a pot of coffee. Once the brewing coffee began releasing its magical aroma into his room, Henry went to his desk, sat down and made love to one of the honey buns that he kept rat-holed in his bottom draw.”—Route Step by J. D. Fink, page 147>

Ken – April 18, 2014

Re: rat hole / rathole

Post by incarnatus est » Sat Apr 19, 2014 7:59 pm

Most excellent, indeed!

I intend to use this information in a column and want to attribute it.

I certainly will give the dictionary sources.

And I certainly will mention the assistance I got from using Wordwizard.

I feel I should mention you, too, Ken, but would you prefer that I not? I'm starting the piece today and will finish tomorrow for a Monday morning deadline.


Re: rat hole / rathole

Post by Ken Greenwald » Sat Apr 19, 2014 10:06 pm

Hugh, Feel free to mention me. I've always wanted to have my name up in lights.

Ken – April 19, 2014 (developing a swelled head)

Re: rat hole / rathole

Post by Wizard of Oz » Sun Apr 20, 2014 2:19 pm

.. Ken, men in tights get their name in lights .. what size would you be ?? ..

WoZ in plights
Signature: "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

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