That Certain Something in the Air: Smelling a Rat


Catch a certain something in the air? Smell a rat? What better way to sniff out a problem than by likening your olfactory capabilities to the cat’s incredible sense of smell?

Some of us already have the ability. Marcellus easily sensed something questionable when the ghost of Hamlet’s father appeared to him — leading him to remark how “something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” (I, iv). A phrase we now use for “a suspected problem which cannot be pinpointed.”

“What’s the stink really all about?” you ask. Well, that could be nothing more than the odor of sanctity. For us it’s considered the epitome of hypocrisy. During the Middle Ages, however, it connoted the ultimate in respectability — in keeping with the popular belief that dead bodies of saintly persons exuded a sweet smell consistent with their holy nature. Conversely, bodies of evil people smelled or stunk to high heaven, emitting an odor of iniquity.

 If all this leaves your nose out of joint—not to fear. It’s been doing so since 1581, a grimace actually somewhat displacing the nose. The nose knows. How obvious is it? “As a nose on a man’s face, or a weathercock on a steeple” (Two Gentlemen from Verona).

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