Tag Archives: take the mick

Glosso’s advent: Baubles of Britishisms – Dec 10


Day 10

Take the mick (or Mickey)

“Rafe Turner, prosecuting for the RSPCA, said a fellow resident at the guest house had made the grim discovery after going to Rogers’ room to feed the rabbit. Rogers had earlier told the man he had killed it after microwaving it for three minutes but the man did not believe him and thought he was “taking the mickey”.” — The Independent, Nov 6 2014

“According to Mr Eagan, the witness added: “Brian was pretty drunk. He was taking the mickey out of his younger brother.” He said that Phillips initially pushed Brian off the stool. Mr Eagan said: “Then he [Brian] gets back up and continued to take the mickey out of his brother and then the incident took place. “There’s nothing worse than being taken the mickey out of by your own brother.” — Surrey Mirror, 13 Oct 2014

That’s what the Brits do when they’re making fun of you and laughing mercilessly at your expense.

It’s thought that the phrase is a shortened version of “take the Mickey Bliss”, which is Cockney rhyming slang for the slightly more vulgar “take the piss”. Who Mickey Bliss was and why the poor chap came to embody the Brits’ favorite past-time of taking the piss out of anyone and everyone we’ll probably never know. World Wide Words has the story.


Take the piss: “Men may fill them, but it takes a woman to take the piss out of a urinal. Or so Julian Spalding, the former director of Glasgow Museums, and the academic Glynn Thompson have claimed. The argument, which has been swooshing around the cistern of contemporary art criticism since the 1980s, is that Duchamp’s famous  artwork Fountain — a pissoir laid on its side — was actually the creation of the poet, artist and wearer of tin cans, Baroness Elsa Von Freytag-Loringhoven.” — The Guardian, 7 Nov 2014

According to World Wide Words, “it’s usually said that the phrase derives from an older one, piss-proud, which refers to having an erection when waking up in the morning … This developed into a figurative sense of somebody who had an exaggerated idea of his own importance. So to take the piss is to deflate somebody, to disabuse them of their mistaken belief that they are special.”

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)