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Why are gym rats so called?

someone who spends a lot of time exercising in the gym, and who cares very much about the shape and condition of their body

Is it an analogy between a rat living in a gym and the muscle freak visiting the game and spending an awful lot of time there?

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Merriam-Webster provides this sense of the word in its definition of rat:

4 : a person who spends much time in a specified place
// a mall rat

Interestingly, Oxford Dictionaries indicates this sense is specifically North American—and it provides many more examples of other words that it's used with.

In the following, the emphasis is mine.

‘After spending a long, hard winter as a gym rat shut-in, you're probably hot to trot outdoors.’

‘I'm a 46-year-old Ohio river rat who's gone there half a dozen times to mountain bike and ski.’

‘Rhyming, however, is the favourite sound effect of slang, as in boob tube television, frat rat member of a US college fraternity.’

‘Shouldn't we at least insist she sells some records like, this decade, before she gets any more coverage for her sex romp/love rat lifestyle?’

‘Peralta ripping in back of Mar Vista Elementary School - the first playground he was officially kicked out of as a young skate rat.’

‘Then or course there's the biggest closet rat of all, me.’

‘And the bag boys all seem to be happy, happy surf rats, with funny haircuts and pretty smiles.’

‘That bum sitting on a heating grate, smelling like a wharf rat?’

‘Mali, while seeming sophisticated, wanders in and out of ghetto rat behavior, especially when it comes to her man, Tad Honeywell.’

‘Some eighteen year old street rat from Paris, France… I wanted him so badly in my world of glitz and glamour… what am I saying?’

As to why the word came to be associated with frequenting a locale or, it seems, a lifestyle, it's not clear.

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  • The fact that it's gym-rat or gym-bunny suggests it's because they are both common, low-status animals, considered ubiquitous and pests of little value (rabbits are proverbially pests to gardeners and farmers, see e.g. Beatrix Potter). Although some animals like "mice" have other connotations (mice are quiet).
    – Stuart F
    Dec 3, 2022 at 15:40
  • I don't think the "wharf rat" sentence is a good example because it uses a more straightforward kind of analogy. "Wharf rat" is a term for a real kind of rat, the brown rat Rattus norvegicus. Dec 4, 2022 at 15:00
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Rat in the sense of someonev who regularly frequents the same place is from the mid-19th century:

Rat has even become a suffix to create words that mean “person who frequents” such and such a place: dock-rat, bar-rat, rug-rat, etc.

(www.dailywritingtips.com)

Gym-rat is an expression from the ‘70s:

[1970s+] (US, also gym bunny) a sports enthusiast; usu. one who frequents gyms and training grounds; often used of young gay men obsessed with body building.

(Green’s Dictionary of Slang)

Gym-rat:

1978 US, an exercise fanatic

(The Routledge Dictionary of Modern American Slang and Unconventional English)

_____-rat, "person who frequents _____" (in earliest reference dock-rat) is from 1864.

(Etymonline)

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With regard to when the term "gym rat" was first used, an Elephind newspaper database search returns matches three matches from the 1960s. From "Gossip!!" in the [Wise, Virginia] Highland Cavalier (June 1, 1964):

If given a choice would you rather be a gym rat, lounge lizard, a library louse, a Tate House Toad, a Dorm Drunk, a Riner House Ringworm or a Baker house Buzzard?"

From "DePauw Student Entrepreneur to Star Golden Gloves Quest" in the [Indianapolis, Indiana] Jewish Post (December 29, 1967):

In preparation for the first round in St. Louis he has become what at least one DePauw coach rather admiringly calls, "a gym rat. He’s there when we open up and he’s there when we close."

And from "The Sentinel's 1969 All-County Cage Team," in the Santa Cruz [California] Sentinel (March 9, 1969):

The other sophomore is the often-spoken-about Rodger Carr of San Lorenzo Valley. The lanky, 6-3, guard-forward is known as the "Gym Rat" for hours of dedicated work on the basketball court.

As the latter two quotations suggest, the key characteristic of a human "gym rat" is to spend all day every day at the gym—practicing, playing, exercising, or just hanging around. The implication of the term is that the "gym rat" effectively lives at the gym, which something that no other creature, except perhaps a rat, would do.

Robert Chapman & Barbara Kipfer, Dictionary of American Slang, third edition (1995) has this brief entry for the expression:

gym rat n phr by 1970s An athlete; a person who frequents gymnasiums: ... a thin, fortunate group of very highly paid gym rats ... —Milwaukee [Wisconsin] Journal

Tom Dalzell & Terry Victor, The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (2006) offers an even later coinage date for the term:

gym rat noun an exercise fanatic US, 1978 | In a grim twist that could fit into one of his songs, in the past year [Warren] Zevon has been a gym rat ("I was working out more than Vin Diesel," he says) and assumed that his shortness of breath and the tightness in his chest were side effects of his regimen. — Los Angeles Times, 13th September 2002

Imagine my surprise, then, when a Google Books search turned up two instances from the 1910s.

From an epigraph/caption in The Illio: A Year Book Produced by the Junior Class at the University of Illinois (1915):

A gym rat graduated with honor.—FERGUSON.

"Ferguson" appears to be Clarence Milford Ferguson, one of the eight University of Illinois seniors whose accomplishments are recorded on the accompanying page of the yearbook; his include "Pushball Committee," "Assistant Manager Varsity Baseball," and "Manager."

And from Charles Collins, The Natural Law (1916):

This Freddie Donlin was a droll demonstration of the cultural value of college athletics. His student days were over. He had managed to squeak through the prescribed courses of study to a degree of Bachelor of Arts two years before, but instead of going out into the world to conquer, according to the advice f the commencement day orators, he had clung closely to the gymnasium, where so much of his time in college had been spent, and had contrived to get on the pay-roll of his Alma Mater as the guide, philosopher and friend of aspiring athletes. He directed the elementary calisthenics of a few gymnasium classes, but his important duties were with the members of the track team, and those who strove to qualify for places in that exalted organization.

Runners were Freddie's specialty, for he had been one himself. He coached them, groomed them, and watched over them with the enthusiasm of a fanatic. He praised or rebuked them, according to their performances; he told them how they should eat, drink, and sleep; he was the fate that directed their lives. He was, moreover, the wag of the training table and the low comedian of the athletic field. Deficient in personal ambition, his dreams of conquest by the team he coached were Napoleonic. A "gym rat" was the picturesque definition for Freddie in the college vernacular. But he was a pervasive and influential rodent, amusing enough to be a welcome member of the "easel parties," as Della called them, of which Jack Bowling was the central figure.

It thus appears that "gym rat" had some currency in college slang in the 1910s, in much the same sense that it had in the 1960s and later. Whether the occurrences are coincidental or evidence of a continuous line of long-unrecognized usage from 1915 onward is unclear to me.

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Why are gym rats so called? Because, it is simply a metaphor. It comes from the fact that rats like to live where people live and they frequent places where humans inhabit. Rats are perhaps the most invasive species in the world and many cities are infested with rats. There are many other slang and figurative senses of rat that are metaphors also like "a dishonest, contemptible, or worthless person" which comes from the fact that rats are considered to be dirty animals that live in the sewers and they can be a huge pest problem. The notoriety of rats and all these metaphors may be connected to the Plague (Black Death) in which rats carried fleas that caused bubonic plague and the deaths of millions of people in the late Middle Ages. The rat metaphor in gym rat is an ameliorated figurative sense from 1611 and it came later than the negative metaphor "a dishonest, contemptible, or worthless person" from 1571 per OED.

Here is the definition of the sense of rat in phrases like gym rat and the earliest citation from OED:

Chiefly U.S. colloquial. Usually with preceding noun. A person who is associated with or frequents a specified place; one associated with or involved in a specified activity.
For more established compounds, as mall, packet, rink, river-, rug-, wharf-rat, etc.: see the first element.

1611   J. Speed Hist. Great Brit. ix. xlvi. 524/2 (note)   Worthy iustice done vpon a Court-Rat or Promoter.

Gym rat is from 1978 per Green's Slang Dictionary:

gym rat n.

  1. (US, also gym bunny) a sports enthusiast; usu. one who frequents gyms and training grounds; often used of young gay men obsessed with body building.

1978 [US] Wash. Post 30 Apr. D1: He plays volleyball, softball, ‘gym-rat basketball,’ and runs [HDAS].

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