Date: Thu, 28 Aug 1997 15:29:10 -0400
From: Alan Baragona baragonasa[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]VAX.VMI.EDU
Subject: Re: Rat=Freshman; Football Terms
At 09:09 AM 8/28/97 -0400, Jesse T Sheidlower wrote:
Perhaps VMI didn't start this. This is from Scholastic Magazine, Oct.
26-31, 1942, pg. 32, col. 2:
If Richmond beats William and Mary, freshmen may abandon their "rat
caps" for the rest of the year.
Then again, perhaps it did:
1863 in Stanard Letters 9: I felt quite lonesome, there being
only a few Rats left as a guard.
[in reference to VMI]
And in what appears to the the 'freshman' sense, OED2 has an example
from 1850 in Louisiana.
jester[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]panix.com
The 1850 OED citation goes as follows (from the online version):
"1850 M. Tensas Odd Leaves Life Louisiana `Swamp Doctor' 113 There were four
or five brother `Rats' besides myself residing in the hospital, all
candidates for graduation, and..all desirous of obtaining sufficient
The earliest written use of "Rat" for "freshman" at VMI is in the 1896
yearbook, _The Bomb_, but it may have been in use for some 20 or 30 years
before that. According to William Couper's _One Hundred Years at V. M. I.
(1939), freshmen were called "plebes" into the early 1860's. Some time in
the 60's, the terminology changed, presumably to "Rat."
So VMI did not start it. :-(
As for Barry Popik's earlier posting about the "Ratline," it is, in fact, an
imaginary line that Rats must walk whenever they are in barracks, moving
along railings and walls, cutting sharp, imaginary corners across walkways,
and always in an exaggerated position of attention. From the line they walk
in barracks, the term has been generalized to the entire Rat experience. So
Rats WALK the Ratline, but they are also IN the Ratline until mid-March,
when they "break out."
"Break Out" has changed over the years. I'm not sure what it was like
originally, but back in the 1950's, Rats actually had to break out of a room
by fighting their way out against the rest of the corps. By the 60's, they
were fighting their way up the stairs of the 4 levels of barracks while
upperclassmen pushed them back and dropped unspeakable substances on them
from above. I'm told that when one Rat fell over a railing and broke a limb
(a Rat allegedly related to a member of the Board of Visitors), they changed
Break Out to the current system of fighting their way up a couple of muddy
"And how but in ritual and ceremony are innocence and beauty born?" :-)
alan[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]vmi.edu
You know, years ago, my mother used to say to me, she'd say, "In this
world, Elwood, you must be . . ."--she always called me 'Elwood'--"In this
world, Elwood, you must be oh, so smart or oh, so pleasant." Well, for
years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. And you may quote me.
Elwood P. Dowd