Piers Kelly writes:

David Marr is probably spewing that almost all the attention on his Quarterly Essay is focused on Rudd’s flamboyant obscenities at the Copenhagen summit. What was it that our sombre and mealy mouthed PM was alleged to have said? (I’m quoting here from the extract because I don’t yet have access to the original):

“Those Chinese fuckers are trying to rat-fuck! us,” declared Kevin Rudd.

In this mood, he’d been talking about countries “rat-fucking” each other for days. Was a deal still possible, asked one of the Australians.

“Depends whether those rat-fucking Chinese want to fuck us.”

So far as I can recall I have never heard rat-fuck or rat-fucking before and I immediately assumed that K-Rudd had thought it up on the spot – a surreal obscenity from a tired and frustrated leader who’d staked his reputation on climate action and a new relationship with China.

But dictionaries have more to say on the dubious practice of rat-fucking. The OED locates the first printed use of ‘rat-fuck’ in 1920s America, and its been spotted in published US sources right up until the present decade. The F Word, a 1995 reference work on “the most controversial word in the English language”, has even more examples. My agents behind the apple-pie curtain have observed its continued use in spoken American English. So what exactly does it mean?

References indicate that rat-fuck as a verb has a whole range of applications. It can mean “to outwit”, “to rummage through with the intent to steal” and  “to harm or victimise”; but it seems that the most commonly applied meaning is “to botch”.

And rat-fuck as a noun can refer variously to a “a contemptible or despicable person”,  a “bungled or disorganized operation or undertaking”, “an unimportant task or mission” or “a crowded, chaotic event, esp. one intended to garner media attention”.

The noun form was recorded first and there are a few euphemistic examples from the 1930s that describe military stuff-ups, as in “This isn’t going to be the same kind of damned disgusting… rat-copulation such as we’ve been going through on the Border”. By the 1980s, doomed missions flown by the US airforce were rendered simply as “Romeo Foxtrot”.

My sources in the US describe a weird game played in college cafeterias in which participants are required to say “rat fuck”, each raising the intensity of their voices in turn until somebody gets too embarrassed to continue. (This meaning hasn’t made it into print yet which is probably just as well. They really ought to stop those maniacs before somebody gets hurt. Kids these days.)

But the sense of outwitting, tricking or playing a prank seems to have come from college campuses even though it is now more widespread. The F word cites a great example from David Brock’s Blinded by the right: the conscience of an ex-conservative (2002):

David Sullivan was… a master of bureaucratic intrigue and leaking to the press–“rat fucking” the enemy, in Sullivan’s words

Likewise, a rat-fucker is a “dirty trickster; a saboteur”.

So perhaps, after all, Rudd’s outburst was not the depraved interjection of a stressed leader with temporary Tourette’s syndrome. It’s quite possible that ‘rat-fucking’ and its variants is common parlance in the halls of international diplomacy where Rudd launched his career — tell me if you know.  In the PM’s mind the expression may well have summed up the doomed atmosphere of the negotiations: a bungled, chaotic and attention-grabbing operation, overflowing with bureaucratic intrigue and infested with rat-fucking saboteurs.