labor rats

George Thompson george.thompson at NYU.EDU
Wed Feb 1 15:34:29 UTC 2006

We here at NYU have been visited daily for the past few months by the
large inflatable grey rat who attends all labor demonstrations in
NYC.  (One would think that there were sufficient discouragements to a
young person seeking a graduate degree in the humanities and most of
the social sciences without the university creating a new one by
provoking the strike, but perhaps it is all for their own good, at

In any event, here is an antedating of the term "rat" as a worker who
sells out the best interests of his class.

        PRINTING. [many printers are out of work, others are being
paid about 2/3 the regular pay; they should join in cooperative
associations, “as we have done”]
        [While] the master printers [fill] their offices with boys and
two-thirds men, alias “rats,” it will be difficult to find a remedy.
        New-York Daily Sentinel, March 13, 1830, p. 2, col. 3

The OED (2nd) has “rat-printer” from 1824, “rat” as a scab, 1836, 1851
& 1868; all U. S., all referring to the printing trade, as does the
passage from the Sentinel, so that it really seems that this sense of
the word rat originated among printers and stayed in their branch of
the labor movement for some decades.

The Sentinel was supportive of labor and the working class, unique for


George A. Thompson
Author of A Documentary History of "The African Theatre", Northwestern
Univ. Pr., 1998, but nothing much lately.

The American Dialect Society -

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