Sunday, 8 November 2015

Why do we say someone is "ratty" when they're in a temper (London)

During my Chinese lesson with my French student Hélène (aged 71), I was doing my usual literal breakdown of a compound.  In this case, the sentence was what a mainland Chinese friend once said of me to my mainland Chinese colleague: “她心很好,脾气不好。” (tā xīn hěn hǎo, píqì bù hǎo / “she heart very good, spleen qì not good” = She’s kind-hearted but bad-tempered.)

(Look online for the different interpretations of qì 气 / 氣 as it’s a bit complex to go into here.  The most simplistic take on qì is:  it’s the vital energy that flows through our body, and any imbalance in the qì in any part of the body, e.g., one of the organs, will manifest itself in some form, e.g., illness, or, in the case of the comment above, one’s temper.)

Hélène didn’t understand what “spleen” was, and as usual, as a keen learner, when she didn't know a word, she’d immediately go and get her English-French dictionary.  She found that it is “la Rate” in French (Rate pronounced like raht, which sounds a bit like rat in English).  

A light bulb moment for me:  that is why we say someone is ratty when they're bad-tempered and irritable!  (cf. "splenetic" in English)

ratty |ˈratē|
adjective ( rattier rattiest )
resembling or characteristic of a rat: his ratty eyes glittered.
• (of a place) infested with rats.
• informal shabby, untidy or in bad condition: a ratty old armchair.
[ predic. ] Brit. informal (of a person) bad-tempered and irritable: I was ratty with the children.
rattily |ˈratl-ē|adverb,
rattiness noun

(London 2015)