Taking the mick, and slagging people off


I think it’s very telling that there’s no real American equivalent for the British saying “to take the piss out of someone”, or its slightly kinder version, “taking the mick (or mickey)”. (Yanks do have “mock” and “make fun of” at their disposal, but neither conveys the same sense of fun and frivolity at the heart of the British expressions.) It strikes me that this is more a reflection of a cultural difference than of any linguistic parting of ways. It’s widely acknowledged that Brits are generally blessed with a profound and developed sense of irony: it’s in their genes, and it pervades the British sense of humor — along with a wicked cynicism — in an almost Jungian way. And another important marker on the British DNA humor strand is that of laughing at someone else’s expense, or making fun of them. Americans are inclined to keep the target of funny self-deprecation strictly to themselves; even an affectionate prod at a near one or dear one is often considered too risque, or just downright mean, unless the obligatory “just kidding” sign flashes mercilessly throughout the joke. But taking the mickey out of others is a British sport. Actually, it’s a national pastime. Dame Edna Everage (of Australian rather than British extraction) has taken this ‘piss-taking’ to an extreme, but you don’t have to look far to find it in British living rooms, pubs and popular culture. A favorite segment of Graham Norton’s prime-time TV chat show is when he invites audience members to tell a story, and then having teased, mimicked and “taken the mickey” out of his willing victims during their toe-curling introductions, he tips them backwards while they’re still in the throes of recounting their tales. It’s British humor at its belly-aching best. And invariably, Norton’s special American guest, there from Hollywood to plug his or her latest flick, looks on with a mixture of confusion and disbelief while the Brits howl with laughter at the wretched storyteller, now upside down with their legs all asunder. So why is it that Americans don’t have an equivalent expression to describe their “taking the piss”? Because they generally don’t indulge in that sport — or if they do, it’s not regarded as funny.

And I’ve noticed another slang phenomenon that might also reflect the way we think rather than just our verbal resources. Take a look at the wide and often colorful vocabulary of pejorative slang used respectively on either side of the Atlantic to describe — or more accurately to “slag off” — our fellow human beings. The words are universally not very nice. And some are more vulgar, cruel, or descriptive than others. But looking more closely, and comparing derisive British slang words with those of Americans, I’ve noticed that Brits tend to voice their contempt for their compatriots more on the grounds of their stupidity, idiocy or social inadequacy (and even of their social standing) than of their behavior or attitude towards others, whereas the Americans are honing in on the mean, nasty or bloody-minded rather than on the intellectually-challenged. Naturally there are many exceptions, but there does seem to be a distinct pattern.

There’s a sub-category of terms used as variations on or synonyms of the universally understood word nerd: someone who is intelligent, knowledgeable or expert (sometimes obsessively) in a particular field (especially scientific or mathematical), socially inept, studious, and any or all of the above. Variously described as swots, dinks, dorks, dweebs, and geeks, these social unfortunates can, I think, be safely consigned to their own unfortunate linguistic ghetto, however mean or undeserved their monikers might be. So I’ve taken them out of this exercise in slang comparison, leaving these two colorful lists below illustrating how we respectively slag off our fellow men. Do you think they say something about the way we judge our compatriots on either side of the pond?

British slang:

berk (idiot)

chav (working- or low-class: pejorative)

div (stupid person; idiot)

git (fool; idiot)

numpty (stupid or ineffectual person)

oik (person from low social class: pejorative)

plonker (idiot; fool)

sod (annoying or unpleasant person)

tosser (unpleasant person, with loser tendencies)

wanker (unpleasant person, with loser tendencies)

twat (idiot)

twit (fool)

pillock (idiot; fool)

prat (idiot; fool)

prick (unpleasant person; jerk)

wally (idiot; fool)

American slang:

asshole (unpleasant person; jerk)

doofus (stupid, foolish person)

douche-bag (unpleasant person; jerk)

jackass (unpleasant person; jerk)

jerk (unpleasant person)

mother-f***er (unpleasant person)

schmuck (unpleasant person)

scumbag (unpleasant person)

sleazebag (unpleasant person)

son of a bitch (unpleasant person)

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