Libyan rebels called Colonel Gaddafi a ‘rat’ before he lost power — not because he was in a hole, but just as an all-purpose insult. And he had called them rats too in a similar spirit. Yet the only Arabist I have been able to catch told me that rat is not a usual animal insult in Arabic, dog being the standard strong term, or donkey, which would scarcely occur to an English speaker.
English is uneven in its animal insults. Dirtiness seems to be the key. Pigs, which we like to eat, show at Blandings and happily turn into children’s characters, from Pinky and Perky to Peppa, still remain available as a term of abuse. It is just that the strength of the insult depends on the accompanying adjective. ‘You greedy pig’ has often been said affectionately. ‘You dirty pig’, seldom.
Dirtiness in animals is not a question of whether they wipe their hooves on the mat. Horses are definitely not dirty, and are not a term of insult. Dogs, like children, we pretend to be fond of, yet their carnivorous, scavenging ways give them a smear of uncleanness. Even so, dog, as an insult, has an air of archaism. Jonathan Swift used to write ‘dog’ in the margin of Bishop Burnet’s History of His Own Time, for Burnet was a Whig. Yet when Samuel Johnson declared that he did not let the Whig dogs have the best of it, he might on the same day have called some slightly disreputable friend a ‘gay dog’. By Dylan Thomas’s day, young doggishness could be a badge of pride.
Rattiness (beyond the irritable kind) remained a far from lovable quality, despite exceptions like Rat in The Wind in the Willows.