Der Rattenschwanz translates to ‘rat’s tail’, and can be used in the literal sense, as well as having the alternate meaning that also exists in English, of a thin ponytail of hair at the back of the head. In German, the most interesting use of the word, however, is to denote a string of unintended and often unpleasant consequences.
Rattenschwanz is primarily used this way in spoken German and is fairly informal, so you are unlikely to come across it written in newspapers or literature.
It is rare to find a rat scuttling along without its tail following behind, so if a decision or action nach sich einen Rattenschwanz zieht (drags a rat’s tail along after it) this means it has a lot of repercussions.
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These consequences are generally unforeseen and pretty negative – a rat’s tail being something that many view as unpleasant. For example, if you decide to undertake a task as a favour for someone but it ends up taking hours and being much more laborious than you expected, you may say it brought a Rattenschwanz along with it.
Some suggest that the origins of this phrase lie in the concept of the Rattenkönig or rat king, the phenomenon by which rats’ tails become knotted together with external materials such as horsehair or tree sap, rendering them completely interdependent.
There is a lot of doubt cast upon whether this process can occur naturally, but the idea appears sporadically across Germanic folklore, as well as popular literature, and is often presented as a bad omen – particularly as rats were seen as carriers of disease. The first account of a Rattenkönig was recorded in 1564, though use of the term subsided in the 18th century, as hygiene standards improved and the phenomenon became rarer.
This folkloric concept may link into the modern colloquialism, with the phrase relating to a slew of results that are generally intertwined and unavoidable. Unforeseen consequences of a decision, as with the Rattenkönig, can grow larger and larger, spiralling out of control.
Der Skandal zog einen Rattenschwanz von Enthüllungen nach sich.
The scandal brought with it a slew of revelations.
Durch die ernsthafte Krankheit hat er dann einen Rattenschwanz an Verletzungen und Krankheiten hinterher gezogen.
Due to the serious medical condition he was left with one injury or illness after the other.