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I stumbled upon this expression for the first time while doing some research for an answer, and I have to admit I love it! An explanation of rat running/ a rat run is as follows

"Rat running/ A rat run" is the act of taking a detour, often planned, on a smaller and often little known or less traveled street or road. If you are familiar with the layout of an area, rat running can be a good way to avoid the congested main roads. There are some things to keep in mind when determining whether or not to rat run

How well known is it? If I use the expression with my British English friends and relatives will they be familiar with the term? Is it a recent coinage? Is a rat run similar to taking a shortcut?

Can anyone trace its history?

Thanks.

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    It is actively used in Australia, although always as a noun—We took a rat-run around Chatswood, Do you know the rat-runs?. We'd never do a rat-run, we always take it. – John Oct 11 '14 at 5:55
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    (Speaking as a native Brit), I can confirm that John Mee has it right: you take a rat-run, you don't do it. – Erik Kowal Oct 11 '14 at 5:59
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    'Jim It is a term very widely used in Britain, particularly in South-East England which has some of the world's most congested road traffic. In the rush hours you have an advantage if you know 'the rat runs' i.e. the minor residential streets which get you past bottlenecks etc. But, in response to appeals from residents, a lot of local authorities have either blocked them off with bollards part way along, or put in traffic calming measures such as humps or chicanes where vehicles going in opposite directions cannot pass. – WS2 Oct 11 '14 at 8:31
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    BTW Mari, it's extremely common for the famous "black-cab" taxi drivers in London to know all the good rat runs, depending on the time of day, what's happening in the city, etc. (They really are awesome.) It's probably the most common context you hear it in ("my cab driver took an awesome rat run and saved 10 minutes by avoiding [picadilly or whatever]..." I wouldn't be surprised if the phrase was first used in relation to black cabs doing so. – Fattie Oct 11 '14 at 10:33
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    I (slightly) edited the poorly-written wiki in question. I encourage anyone less drunk than me to further improve it. Mari-Lou, you may want to possibly consider editing your Q/title to the noun form (of course it's your question). (I always worry about how these things will sit around for tens of thousands of years. Someone will then google this page and take it as a reference.) – Fattie Oct 11 '14 at 10:44
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Is a rat run similar to taking a shortcut?

Not really. Quite simply, it is a minor street (let's say: "not supposed, by the authorities, to be used by commuter traffic") that is cleverly / sneakily / craftily / ironically used to avoid being on the "normal" major traffic streets. It would usually be shorter, but may be more circuitous as it avoids traffic.

As John Mee and Erik Kowal have both pointed out, it is a noun.

Josh61 has already posted the correct definition "rat-run: (British) a side street used for fast commuter traffic. A phrase and phenomenon of the late 1980s. link" Another correct definition from the OED, courtesy of Medica "British. informal. A minor, typically residential street used by drivers during peak periods to avoid congestion on main roads: 'our road was used as a rat run between two main roads.'"

How well known is it?

Every person in Britain, especially Londoners, know it.

Note too that the meaning is obvious, rats tend to scurry down pipes, tiny lanes, and gutters in order to avoid populated areas

I have to admit I love it!

It's an exceedingly rich expression so you are very wise to love it. You know how the single worst thing, in the Universe - worse than Nazis, worse than vegetarianism, worse than 5th degree burns, worse than child molestation, worse than politicians, worse than terminal cancer - is Commuting. It rather makes you think of the phrase...

The rat race

and just how the whole situation is unbearably horrible. Traffic in London is a killer: somehow rat run manages to do a number of things at once:

(*) It is rather derogatory towards the "civilians" living on the nice little quiet residential streets. ("Screw those rich bastards with their Balthaup kitchens - to me it's just an ugly pipe like a damned rat would run down. I'll drive on it if I want to! Hah hah! Keep your damned kids inside!")

(*) It anti-enobles the whole entire act - the whole lifestyle - paradigm - milieu - of living and working in London, down to a pointless, animalistic, disease-ridden subconscious scampering: in filth.

(*) For me it really captures the 80s (for some reason it's really like a kind of Brit equivalent to the film "Wall St", you know?): it has a pithy, brutal, self-aware-of-greed-and-pointlessness quality. Quite amazing.

For me personally, it immediately connects with The Stainless Steel Rat dystopian novel by Harry Harrison— commuters in a small way trying to beat the system; hopeless of course, but then we're all just... rats.

Note that as with any issue in the UK, it immediately became a sort of central issue in the overall police-state, authoritarianism, general sort of ongoing social battle. "The man" immediately tried to clamp down on drivers using rat runs, via adding strange bumps on the roads and so on. (In contrast, government-sponsored public transport vehicles such as buses got their own lanes. "Oh, you wanna try using rat runs huh? How's THIS? Stfu and pay taxes" ... sort of thing.)

Here's a poor attempt at indicating a typical London rat-run, but I encourage any real Londoners to click Edit and put in a better one (using AZ rather than the non-British Google.maps!) I wonder if any black cab drivers use this site as a pastime?

enter image description here

Poor example of a rat run. You avoid a very busy intersection by nipping along some residential streets, making as much engine noise as possible to irritate the overseas wealthy.

  • Nice try... but a real rat runner would have gone round Soho Square, the wrong way, twice, in second gear, and then out onto Tottenham Court Road. – Roaring Fish Oct 11 '14 at 13:36
  • Relax Mari-Lou... he is just being satirical. – Roaring Fish Oct 11 '14 at 13:39
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    @JoeBlow... as a citizen of the dark satanic mills region of UK, I can report that I never heard or used 'rat run'. It may be in use there now though - I left the country 12 years ago. – Roaring Fish Oct 11 '14 at 13:42
  • Fish dude - for sure, put in a video or map of that! :) like i said I encourage any real Londoners to click Edit and put in a better one – Fattie Oct 11 '14 at 13:46
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    It is a long time since I worked in central London, but as a youngster in the sixties, driving an original Austin Mini, I knew all the rat runs. On this example I am unsure of the significance of the red (Oxford Street). But why does the driver not go all the way round Soho Square, into Soho Street, and out on to Oxford Street, avoiding the need to come down Frith street and back on to Charing Cross Road. I have checked the one-way system on Google maps (which may be out of date). But I am not sure if you can drive along Oxford street nowadays. – WS2 Oct 11 '14 at 18:22
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If I had an OED, I could be more specific, but the phrase rat-run is in the Oxford Online Dictionary:

British informal A minor, typically residential street used by drivers during peak periods to avoid congestion on main roads: 'our road was used as a rat run between two main roads.'

Etymonline lists rat-run from 1870 "in a literal sense", but doesn't give an example of its use other than a mention next to rat race.

An Asperger Dictionary of Everyday Expressions written in 2004 gives the definition (as does The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable of 2006):

A faster route between two points that is circuitous but avoids traffic hold-ups.*

The * denotes a level of impoliteness (I have no idea about the title!)

Finally, and interestingly, rat run is defined in the Spanish, but not the English) Collins:

rat run (Brit) (Aut) calle residencial usada por los conductores para evitar atascos (a residential street user by drivers to evade traffic jams.)

So, it's not a short cut by distance but is by time, and it seems to be better known in Britain than in the US.

I can easily imagine this coming from rat behavior in mazes. A-mazing research, Dr. C. James Goodwin writes (on the importance of rat maze studies:

In his 1937 APA presidential address, the noted neobehaviorist Edward Chace Tolman, PhD, made a startling claim: "Everything important in psychology … can be investigated in essence through the continued experimental and theoretical analysis of the determinants of rat behavior at a choice-point in a maze."

This venerable tradition might well have it's origin in the Hampton Court Maze built in 1690 just outside London. The first maze study was conducted Willard Small and Linus Klineby (who had just returned from a visit to London in 1890s),two graduate students in psychology. Their 6' x 8' maze was called "the Hampton Court Maze".

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    @Mari-LouA - D'oh! How that slipped in there is really a mystery. The Free Dictionary link is under the Spanish translation for Collins. (A lot of people dislike TFD because it quotes multiple dictionaries.) And, yes, its/it's and separate are my most consistent spelling mistakes. I can't guess why. Fun question, btw. I had never heard the phrase before. – anongoodnurse Oct 11 '14 at 7:45
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    I can't guess why. You don't write 'aubrieta' and 'fuchsia' as often. And you'd check 'pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis'. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 11 '14 at 8:21
  • What would be the AmEng equivalent? Until today I wasn't even 100% it was BrEng. – Mari-Lou A Oct 11 '14 at 8:36
  • This is utterly wrong: "A faster route between two points that is circuitous but avoids traffic hold-ups." It's often/usually actually physically shorter (because it's a secret minor street, a ruelle, that "nobody knows about") – Fattie Oct 11 '14 at 10:36
  • Hic! sound good to me! – Fattie Oct 11 '14 at 11:10
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You take a rat run usually to avoid traffic and spare time.

Rat run [countable] British English: (from Longman dict.)

  • a quiet street that drivers use as a quick way of getting to a place, rather than using a main road:

    • The road has become a rat run for traffic avoiding the town centre.

Rat run: (from www.thorne_slang.enacademic.com)

  • (British) a side street used for fast commuter traffic. A phrase and phenomenon of the late 1980s.

The following article is from a Taxi Magazine: (from www.pubcat.co)

  • Why do we keep hearing about certain roads being used as a “rat run”? It sounds horrible doesn’t it? We read it in the paper, or hear it on local radio; and duly recoil at the image of dirty rodents running through slimy sewers and up greasy drainpipes. The media have done their job: they have made a traffic cut-through seem dirty and wrong. Those who dare to think their way around alternative streets in order to avoid congestion are likened to rats, and are seen as negative and anti-social.

As suggested by some users, the expression is used also in Australia: (from The West Australian)

  • Rat runs raise safety fears on back streets Perth's growing traffic congestion has spilled over into small suburban streets as motorists search out peak-hour shortcuts known as "rat runs".

  • Rat runs have sprung up all over the metropolitan area, putting pressure on streets that were not built to handle large volumes of traffic.

Considering the above, the expression appears to have a recent coinage ( late 80's); your British friends would probably understand its meaning ( traffic issues are very popular); and it is used also in Australia. The reference to rats running through sewers and drainpipes to move quickly through places ( as suggested in the taxi magazine article) is very suggestive..and probably a reliable one. –

  • Unfortunately, nowadays if questions don't hit the "Hot Network", good answers such as all the ones posted so far, tend to get ignored. – Mari-Lou A Oct 11 '14 at 15:37
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A 'rat run' is a term very widely used in Britain, particularly in South-East England which has some of the world's most congested road traffic.

At busy times you have an advantage if you know 'the rat runs' i.e. the minor residential streets which get you past bottlenecks etc.

But, in response to appeals from residents, a lot of local authorities have either blocked them off with bollards part way along, or put in traffic calming measures such as humps or chicanes where vehicles going in opposite directions cannot pass.

  • Could you please add when you first heard/used the term rat run. – Mari-Lou A Oct 12 '14 at 9:39
  • @Mari-LouA I couldn't say for sure. But my guess is that it has been around since the 1970s and perhaps earlier. – WS2 Oct 12 '14 at 15:14
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I lived in Los Angeles in the 70's-80's. Oh yes, a bit of traffic. Everyone there then used the expression 'rat run'. The name is obviously derived from the famous experiments of putting rodents in mazes and watching them learn the shortest way through.

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I always thought it was an abbreviation R.A.T.T. Riding (Route Alternative To Traffic) taking an alternative route down side streets to avoid the main congestion of rush-hour traffic.

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