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smell a rat (third-person singular simple present smells a rat, present participle smelling a rat, simple past and past participle smelt a rat or smelled a rat)

  1. (idiomatic) To sense something suspicious.
    • 1663 February 5 (first performance), John Dryden, The Wild Gallant: A Comedy. As It was Acted at the Theater-Royal, by His Majesties Servants, [London,] in the Savoy: Printed by Tho[mas] Newcomb, for H[enry] Herringman, at the Blew-Anchor, in the Lower-Walk of the New-Exchange, 1669, OCLC 4473371, Act IV, scene i, page 45:
      Oh, Are you thereabouts, Sir; then I ſmell a Rat Ifaith; but I'll ſay nothing.
    • 1776 February, “a Lady”, “A Sentimental Journey”, in The Lady's Magazine; or Entertaining Companion for the Fair Sex, Appropriated Solely to their Use and Enjoyment, London: Printed for G. Robinson, No. 25, Paternoster-Row, OCLC 605231716, page 62, column 2:
      [O]ur conjectures were like arrows ſhot in the dark—they were wide of the mark—till an old gentleman came into the room, who after affixing his ſpectacles on the ſuperior part of an aquiline noſe, told us—"he ſmelt a rat!" / "He ſmelt a rat!" and ſhaking his head with all the ſolemnity of Attic ſagacity—whiſpered to the perſon next his elbow, / "I know it!"
    • 1873 July 19 – 1874 January 10, Anthony Trollope, “The Prime Minister is Hard Pressed”, in Phineas Redux, London; New York, N.Y.: George Routledge and Sons, December 1874, OCLC 38672532, page 335:
      Mr. Gresham, when he heard this, thought that he began to smell a rat, and was determined to be on his guard.
    • 2007, Alex Boese, Elephants on Acid: And Other Bizarre Experiments, Orlando, Fla.: Harcourt, ISBN 978-0-15-603135-6:
      [John Broadus] Watson would have liked to continue his infant studies, but he never had the chance. His wife smelled a rat and found out his affair with his graduate student assistant, Rosalie Rayner.
    • 2011, Russell L. Kaldenberg, “Being a US Government Cultural Resource Manager”, in Thomas F. King, editor, A Companion to Cultural Resource Management (Blackwell Companions to Anthropology; 17), Chichester, West Sussex; Malden, Mass.: Wiley-Blackwell, ISBN 978-1-4051-9873-8:
      Eventually, the job was re-advertised and she applied for it. She applied repeatedly over several years, but was never selected. She began smelling a rat (this being a land managing agency, a woodrat). She did some checking and found out that contrary to its promises, the agency had done all it could to "blackball" her from working in federal service again.
    • 2011, Thomas S. Kidd, “Defending the Revolution by Opposing the Constitution”, in Patrick Henry: First among Patriots, New York, N.Y.: Basic Books, ISBN 978-0-465-02810-8:
      One anecdote holds that when a pro-Constitution opponent demanded to know why [Patrick] Henry had not attended the convention, he replied, "I smelt a rat." Henry scented that decaying rodent in the notion that the states should surrender more power to a new national government.
    • 2015, Mary Brendan, chapter 2, in Tarnished, Tempted and Tamed (Mills & Boon Regency), Richmond, Surrey: Mills & Boon, ISBN 978-0-263-24802-9:
      If Collins smells a rat, you might gain nothing and tempt the gang to persecute you and your daughter.

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