I hear/read the phrase "going down a/the rathole" used as a synonym for the phrase "going down a/the rabbit hole," the later taken from chapter 1 - "Down the Rabbit Hole" of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll.

For example, "let's not go down a rat hole," "that topic is a rathole," etc. I've often encountered this in meetings where a topic or past event is brought up and is then responded to with "let's not go down that rat hole," or a similar variation used to state that a topic, or issue is so confusing, complex, or outside of reality and reason that it would be impossible or at least not beneficial to discuss. There could a time component, but the main point is being unable to reason about something.

Google's definition of rathole is

noun: rathole; plural noun: ratholes; noun: rat-hole; plural noun: rat-holes

  1. informal a cramped or squalid room or building.
  2. NORTH AMERICAN informal used to refer to the waste of money or resources. "pouring our assets down the rathole of military expenditure"

One of Wikipedia's explanations of rabbit hole is

"down the rabbit hole", a metaphor for an entry into the unknown, the disorientating or the mentally deranging, from its use in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland a slang expression for a psychedelic experience, from the same usage.

I cringe when I hear rathole used instead of rabbit hole, because of two issues:

  1. What exactly is a rat hole (is this really a widely known fact or idea)?
  2. The deeper idea (e.g. magnitude of the confusion) trying to be conveyed seems to be lost with rathole because the reference to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is at worst lost, or at best greatly degraded. Consider vanity versus narcissism -- the later having a mythological aspect which communicates a larger idea in a single word.

My question is this, are both usages correct/synonymous to state that discussing an issue or past experience would be so disorienting, complex, or confusing, so as to not be beneficial?

  • 1
    "Rat hole" and "rabbit hole" are two different terms with different meanings. The uses you quote (absent any significant context) sound to be more appropriate for "rat hole" than "rabbit hole". What makes you think the uses are not correct?
    – Hot Licks
    Oct 20, 2015 at 21:31
  • 1
    If a topic is known to be a time-waster, eg, it's validly referred to as a "rat hole".
    – Hot Licks
    Oct 20, 2015 at 21:36
  • 2
    "The deeper idea trying to be conveyed seems to be lost with rathole" - What deeper idea? You haven't given us any context or mentioned any deep ideas. How can we say it has been lost if we don't know what is being described? Oct 20, 2015 at 21:47
  • 2
    None of the examples you give (“Let's not go down that rathole” or “That topic is a rathole” in the context of a discussion in a meeting) would work with rabbit hole. That would simply make them nonsensical, barring some kind of tenuous context that is definitely not present in the examples as given. As others have said, both usages are correct, but not synonymous. You're the one mixing them up and misusing (one of) them, not the ones using ‘down a rathole’. Oct 20, 2015 at 23:14
  • 1
    I've been in plenty of meetings where we did fall into a rat hole. There was never anything "confusing" -- simply the fact that certain people clung desperately to conflicting opinions such that we could talk until we were blue in the face and never get anywhere. Actual rabbit holes are quite rare compared to the frequency of rat holes.
    – Hot Licks
    Oct 21, 2015 at 0:16

2 Answers 2


Both their origins and their current usage suggest different meaning. I think that they are just sometime misused involuntarily:


  • also rathole, 1812 in figurative sense of "nasty, messy place;" rat (n.) + hole (n.). As "bottomless hole" (especially one where money goes) from 1961.


Rabbit hole:

  • a bizarre or difficult state or situation —usually used in the phrase down the rabbit hole.


  • from the rabbit hole that Alice enters in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland First Known Use: 1980


  • Please see the edits to my question. I am comparing "down the rathole" and "down the rabbit hole" rather than rathole and "down the rabbit hole."
    – bn01
    Oct 20, 2015 at 22:09
  • No one has yet demonstrated that people commonly confuse these two. The confusion appears to be on the part of those saying "down a rat hole" is not appropriate. And they are not synonymous.
    – Hot Licks
    Oct 20, 2015 at 22:33
  • What misuse? No one had demonstrated any misuse yet!!!
    – Hot Licks
    Oct 20, 2015 at 22:36
  • What are the examples of "misuse" that are being discussed here??
    – Hot Licks
    Oct 20, 2015 at 22:40
  • 1
    I don't get them confused.
    – deadrat
    Oct 21, 2015 at 6:02

Down the rabbit-hole implies going into the unknown, as rabbits tend to disappear quickly.

In a rat-hole describes being in a closed up filthy environment.

See also Spider-Hole. for a scary combination of the two.

  • I don't think that "down the rabbit-hole" implies going into the unknown, do you have evidence to support it.
    – user66974
    Oct 20, 2015 at 22:17
  • 7
    @Josh61 - Have you ever read Alice in Wonderland?
    – Hot Licks
    Oct 20, 2015 at 22:34
  • @Josh61: Also note the reasonably common usage lost in a warren - a literal or figurative labyrinthine network, where the way through is usually unknown/confusing. Oct 29, 2015 at 1:48

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