Rat Race – Idiom, Origin & Meaning

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Danielle McLeod

Danielle McLeod is a highly qualified secondary English Language Arts Instructor who brings a diverse educational background to her classroom. With degrees in science, English, and literacy, she has worked to create cross-curricular materials to bridge learning gaps and help students focus on effective writing and speech techniques. Currently working as a dual credit technical writing instructor at a Career and Technical Education Center, her curriculum development surrounds student focus on effective communication for future career choices.

Idioms are words and phrases that provide a figurative use different from the literal meaning. They are often fun and quirky ways to add detail, allusion or analogy to a sentence but can confuse anyone unfamiliar with their use.

A rat race is a well-used idiom that offers up the visual of rats racing around after something. Still, the term is easily applied to various behaviors and situations. When you hear somebody use the term, they are likely referring to a competitive situation that infers stressors are involved.

Let’s take a closer look at the use of rat race so you can use it correctly in your material.

What Is the Meaning of Rat Race?

Rat Race Idiom Origin Meaning

A rat race is a fierce, competitive way of life that involves pursuing goals in a repetitive, endless manner.

The image behind the expression rat race is a group of laboratory rats racing through a maze in order to be the first one to obtain a goal. In this case, the rats are at the mercy of the experimenter and the degree of difficulty he designed the maze.

The analogy created through its use infers that the person involved in the rat race feels as though one is at the mercy of others or of other forces.

Rat Race Examples in a Sentence

  • Lately, his corporate job had begun to feel like a rat race, taking him away from what he enjoyed.
  • Despite spending over a decade in the rat race of media design, she left her success in the business to pursue a career that allowed her more time with her family.
  • Sometimes spending time and energy in the rat race of business is worth it. For example, Luke built up an excellent retirement portfolio that allowed him to pursue a more relaxing career, knowing his future was well taken care of.

Is Rat Race Hyphenated?

Rat Race vs Rat Race Ngram
Rat race and rat-race usage trend.

Rat race is also spelled with a hyphen, as in rat-race. It is found spelled both ways in writing and within various dictionaries. Technically, rat race is hyphenated when used as an adjective before a noun, but both versions are often interchangeable.

For example: 

  • He was tired of the rat-race lifestyle that had her going from sun up to sun down, and she couldn’t wait to explore new job options that let her live her life without the rush and repetition. 

Avoid spelling it as ratrace as it is incorrect and grammatically incorrect.

Rat Race Origins

Rat Race Ngram
Rat race usage trend.

The literal origins of a rat race are from the early 19th century and describe the decorating of literal rats with ribbon to tell them apart as they ran a race spectators gambled on. It’s likely this was in practice long before it was documented, as the first mention wasn’t even printed until 1848 in The Sporting Review.

By the end of the 19th century, the term had taken on a derogatory usage when applied to other various pursuits, such as work or business.

In the 1930s, a rat race was used in reference to aviation training that consisted of fighter planes involved with a follow-the-leader type exercise. This use is described in the magazine Popular Science in May of 1941.

Let’s Review

Despite its very literal inception—to race literal rats across a room to place bets on—the term rat race has come to mean a competitive way of life involving repetitive actions to become successful.

Although being part of a rat race may ensure the reward of certain creature comforts and even a gain in financial stability, it often comes at the cost of self-satisfaction. Many people caught up in the rat race feel they are at the mercy of outside forces and don’t always get to do the things they enjoy.

Enjoyed reading about this idiom? Check out some others we covered: