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.

Jesse Sheidlower


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

medical lore."

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 Baragona


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