origin of ‘to take the mickey out of someone’

 

 

MEANING

 

British (informal) to take the mickey (also mickymickmikeout of someone:
to tease or ridicule someone

 

PROBABLE ORIGIN

 

Rhyming slang is a type of slang that replaces words with rhyming words or phrases, typically with the rhyming element omitted; for example, apples, short for apples and pears, means stairs in rhyming slang.

Mike and Mickey, short for Michael, appear in Mike Bliss, also Mickey Bliss or simply Mickey, rhyming slang for the noun pissurineact of urination (see note). This leads to the phrase to take the mike, or the mickeyout of someone, a euphemism for the explicit form to take the piss out of someone—which is attested later, perhaps precisely because it is explicit. In A Dictionary of Rhyming Slang (Routledge, 1961), Julian Franklyn wrote:

(2004 reprint)
Micky Bliss An alternative form of the next:
Mike Bliss Piss (to urinate). 20 C., hence to deflate the bladder, thus ‘to take the Mike (or the Micky) out of . . .’, to deflate (or humiliate), also ‘to take the piss out of . . .’, to insult.

In other words, the phrase to take the piss out of someone or to take the mickey, or mike, out of someone appears to be based on an analogy between deflating the bladder and ‘deflating’ false pride. The anonymous A New Canting Dictionary (London, 1725) contains the following definition:

Vain-Glorious, or Ostentatious Man, one that boasts without Reason, or, as the Canters say, pisses more than he drinks.

And the second edition (London, 1788) of A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, by the English antiquary and lexicographer Francis Grose (1731-91), refers to morning erections caused by the build-up of urine in the bladder:

Piss-proud. Having a false erection. That old fellow thought he had an erection, but his —— was only piss-proud; said of any old fellow who marries a young wife.

The original image seems therefore that in order to ridicule a person for being ‘full of themself’, one would ‘take the piss out of them’. (Incidentally, whether Mike Bliss originally referred to a real person is of little interest; and it is highly unlikely that mike, or mickey, in the slang phrase is a shortening of the rare learned word micturition, meaning urination.)

(Note: Similarly, snake’s hiss means act of urination. And to go on the Cousin Sis is rhyming slang for to go on the piss, meaning to go on a drinking bout—here, piss means alcoholic drink.)

 

The earliest instance of to take the mickey, or mike, out of someone in the Oxford English Dictionary (3rd edition, 2002) is from The Mint: A day-book of the RAF depot between August and December 1922, with later notes (London, 1955), by Thomas Edward Lawrence (1888-1935), British intelligence officer and author of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926), who inspired the film Lawrence of Arabia (1962), directed by David Lean (1908-91), starring Peter O’Toole (1932-2013).

However, I have found earlier instances of the phrase. The earliest is from the Gravesend & Dartford Reporter, Northfleet Reporter, North Kent, Tilbury, Grays, and South Essex Advertiser (Gravesend, Kent, England) of Saturday 20th July 1901:

James Jesse Addison, of 13, Arabi-cottages, Lower Range-road, Denton, was summoned for assaulting and beating his wife, Sophia Addison, on 29th June. […] Complainant deposed that on 29th June defendant came home in the afternoon and asked her what money she wanted. Eventually he gave her 10s. Whilst she was mending a pillow case in which he wanted to take his regimental clothes to Tilbury he was cleaning his boots and said “If you sit there taking the ‘mike’ out of me I will knock you to the ground.” She did not know what he meant by that. Witness then went into the front room, and he followed and struck her a severe blow on one of her eyes, blackening it.

The second-earliest instance that I have found is from the Daily Herald (London) of Monday 28th May 1923:

to take the mickey - Daily Herald - 28 May 1923

RUNS RISK FOR GIRL
Dangerous Driving Charge Sequel to Taunt

“It’s like this—a man in a motor-car was trying to take the ‘mickey’ out of me, and I just opened to take him down. He turned round and laughed at me as he passed, and the girl on the back of my bike said, ‘I shouldn’t stand that,’ so I shot ahead of him.” This was the excuse of Clifford Smith, baker, Uppingham-road, Leicester, when charged with dangerous driving at the Leicester court.
For “shooting ahead” he was ordered to pay £3 and his licence was endorsed.

The form to take the piss is first recorded in the short story The Swag, the Spy and the Soldier (1945), by the English writer and Soho dandy Julian Maclaren-Ross (1912-64):

“Witness at a court-martial.” The story was too long to tell, so I took out a press-cutting and passed it on to him. The corporal read it carefully. “But this don’t say nothing about you. This says a novelist. You ain’t no novelist.” “No.” The corporal gave it up. He sat back in his corner looking a little offended. He thought I was taking the piss.

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