Why Do We Call Kids “Rug Rats”?

The term was in use nearly 30 years before the show “Rugrats” began airing on Nickelodeon in 1991.
Where did this weird word come from?
Where did this weird word come from? / Jetta Productions Inc/DigitalVision/Getty Images

It’s hardly the most complimentary turn of phrase, but rug rat has been used as a slang term for children for more than half a century.

Etymologically, the story is a fairly straightforward one. According to Green’s Dictionary of Slang, the term rug rat literally refers to “a small child who is still crawling on the carpet.” So the rug is just a floor covering, while rat has been used in various contexts to refer to people since the 1800s; Green’s even has reference to a rat meaning “a street urchin” dating from 1896.

The term rug rat itself isn’t quite as old as that, though. The Oxford English Dictionary has so far managed to trace its earliest recorded use back to 1964, when an article in Nebraska’s Columbus Daily Telegram made reference to repairing tackle on a fishing trip “for the rug rats.”

From there, rug rat was quickly embraced in the slangy speech of the 1970s and ‘80s—but in many early examples of the phrase, the fairly uncomplimentary association of a grubby rodent was never too far away. Take this passage from “Vidiots That Have Known Me” by Robert Manning, which appeared in 73 Magazine in October 1969:

“I was immediately accosted by two animal forms. The first … a sticky jam, tar, and glue-fingered, curtain climbing, crumb-grabbing rug rat that attached itself to my leg like Sinbad’s ‘old man of the sea,’ shrieking and screaming something totally unintelligible …”

‘Rugrats’ characters at the 90sFEST Pop Culture And Music Festival / Donald Bowers/GettyImages

Of course, the word found a whole new audience in the 1990s with the arrival of Nickelodeon’s hit animated series Rugrats in 1991. As its co-creator Arlene Klasky said in an interview with The Guardian in 2015, the term rug rat still wasn’t all that widely known by the time she first pitched the show in 1989 (and her original idea was to name it Onesomething, as a play on the hit show Thirtysomething). Nine seasons, 13 years, four Daytime Emmy Awards, and a movie later, however, the show’s popularity had changed all of that, and rug rat has remained in widespread use in English ever since.

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