‘to take the mickey out of someone’: meaning and origin

MEANING

 

In British English, the informal phrase to take the mickey, or the mike, out of someone means 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, in the phrase not to have a scooby, scooby, rhyming slang for clue, is short for Scooby Doo, the name of a cartoon dog which features in several U.S. television series and films.

Mickey, also Mike, short for Michael, appear in Mickey Bliss, also Mike Bliss (or simply Mickey, also Mike), rhyming slang for the noun pissurineact of urination (see note). This apparently gave rise to the phrase to take the mickey, or the mikeout 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 the 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.—Cf. also the phrase couldn’t organise a piss-up in a brewery.

 

EARLY OCCURRENCES
[Last edited on Monday 27th December 2021.] 

 

The earliest occurrences of the phrase to take the mickey, or the mike, out of someone that I have found are as follows, in chronological order [source: The British Newspaper Archive]:

1-: From Brentwood Petty Sessions, published in The Essex Times (London, England) of Saturday 20th June 1891 [page 5, column 2]:

Alfred Alderton, bricklayer’s laborer, of Brentwood, was charged with having assaulted a lad named William Dyson, of Milton-road, on June 6th.—Porsecutor [sic] stated that he was in the Railway Coffee Tavern with several others. The defendant came in, said something about “taking the mike out of the old man,” and struck a young man named Wright in the mouth. Witness said Wright had said nothing to the old man, and Alderton struck witness in the eye, and directly after in the mouth.—Henry Wright stated that the defendant first struck witness, and then struck Dyson.—Henry Eady corroborated this.—James Warren stated that Dyson went up to Alderton with some dominoes in his hand. Fined 2s. 6d. with 10s. costs.

(This paragraph was reprinted in The Essex Times (London, England) of Wednesday 24th June 1891 [page 7, Column 2].)

2-: From the East London Advertiser (London, England) of Saturday 6th April 1895 [page 7, Column 3]—acknowledgement: Garson O’Toole, American Dialect Society, Thursday 12th July 2018:

EAST LONDON POLICE.
THAMES.
Monday, April 1st.
(Before Mr. Mead.)

Smashing Windows.—Richard W. Bassano, 36, was charged with wilfully breaking a plate-glass window, valued at £2/10, the property of William Peacock, proprietor of the “Foresters’ Arms” beer-house, Salmon’s-lane, Limehouse.
From the statement of Mr. George Hay Young, who prosecuted, it appeared that the defendant asked Mr. Peacock to give him trust for some beer. On the prosecutor refusing, Bassano said, “Well, here goes.” He then threw two pewter pots through the window. When charged he said, “He tried to take a mike out of me, and I took one out of him.”—The defendant had previously been convicted for similar damage.—Mr. Mead sentenced him to two month’s hard labour.

3-: From Croydon Borough Bench, published in the Croydon Times (London, England) of Wednesday 27th November 1895 [page 3, column 2]:

TAKING A RISE OUT OF A CONSTABLE.

Joseph Venables, of 74, Stanley-road, shoemaker, was charged with being drunk, disorderly and using obscene language at Pitlake.
Prisoner pleaded guilty.
P.c. 198 W said at about 7.30 on Monday evening he was at Pitlake when prisoner came up to him and asked the way to the municipal lodging house. Witness directed him, whereupon he said he knew as well as witness did where it was. He was very drunk, used bad language, and said he only wanted to take a “mike” out of witness, who then took him into custody. Prisoner was very violent on the way to the station.
Fined 2s. 6d. and 2s. 6d. costs.

4-: From The Mirror of Life (London, England) of Saturday 22nd August 1896 [page 7, column 2]:

FUSSY PEOPLE WHO RIDE ON THE TRAMS,
Who Sometimes Lose More Than their Tempers.
(Subject of Illustration.)

Among those who have to travel to the city of London from the suburbs there is a regular class of riders who patronise the tramways whose termini are on the skirts of the City proper, and in wet or uncertain weather there is always at certain times great inconvenience in getting a seat, and overcrowding is the consequence. There is always the crank who wants more than the company can supply, whether he be seated or standing, and the fussy man will generally find some wit who amuses the other passengers by take [sic] a “mike” out of that unfortunate gentleman.

5-: From the Gravesend & Dartford Reporter, Northfleet Reporter, North Kent, Tilbury, Grays, and South Essex Advertiser (Gravesend, Kent, England) of Saturday 20th July 1901 [page 8, column 2]:

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.

6-: From “Wanderer” on the Water, published in the Gravesend & Northfleet Standard and Kent & Essex Post (Gravesend, Kent, England) of Saturday 31st May 1902 [page 6, column 1]:

At 11.25 we boarded the Eagle at Tilbury, and at once proceeded to “take the ozone.” Five minutes passed and we noticed the London Belle bearing down on us in hot pursuit, as eager for the fray as a policeman who hasn’t had a case for a month. A stern chase is proverbially a long chase, but level with the Chapman the Belle slipped across the Eagle’s bows a trifle too close for safety. A slight swerve, and nothing could have averted a catastrophe. It was pretty—very pretty—but please don’t do it again when I am aboard, as my heart is weak (sometimes) and my insurance premium, though due, not paid.
A good race lost. Never mind, we had landed some few hundred passengers at Whitechapel-on-Mud, and were standing for the Kent coast, where the Royal Sovereign and Southend Belle were level with the Medway, and seemed to be trying to take the mike one out of the other.

7-: From Passing Notes, by ‘The Chiel’, published in the Gravesend & Northfleet Standard and Kent & Essex Post (Gravesend, Kent, England) of Saturday 16th January 1904 [page 8, column 2]:

Is it not amusing how, when any matter touching upon education comes before the Select Eighteen, one of their number considers it his bounden duty to sing the requiem of the defunct School Board? Why can’t he let the dead alone? The needs of the living are of far more consequence.
I am not the only one who considers this continual cry of what was, is not what is, is nothing more or less than blowing one’s own trumpet. I read a speech last week, in which some wiseacre tried to show that the Kent Education Committee is as near as a touch the personification of all the virtues.
When they do attain that altitude, the old Northfleet School Board will be able to gaze upon them with pride, and, while mentally patting them on the head, say “Behold this fair child of mine. It has attained the pinnacle of perfection which was ours before a cruel Government took the mike out of our conceit.”

8-: From the account of the Thorpe (Essex) Petty Sessions, published in the East Anglian Daily Times (Ipswich, Suffolk, England) of Tuesday 4th July 1905 [page 7, column 3]:

Mr. Fred W. Smith, grocer and wine merchant, stated that defendant, meeting him in the road, charged him with being “the — who took ‘a mike’ out of him, and then used obscene language.

9?-: From Slaying a Superstition, published in the Nuneaton Observer (Nuneaton, Warwickshire, England) of Friday 23rd July 1909 [page 2, column 6]—the meaning of the phrase is unclear:

The manager moved from point to point, as though conducting a field of battle. Did he seek for a face and find it not, he said the missing man was malingering; did he notice a “worker” taking a “mike,” he said the skulker was playing the coward.

10-: From Llanwrtyd Wells Notes, by ‘Jungle Wallah’, published in the Brecon County Times (Brecon, Brecknockshire, Wales) of Thursday 27th September 1917 [page 5, column 6]:

There is no more modest fellow than the British Tommy, and he is generally resentful of compliment; but when a flying man is designated a hero because he has reached his A.M. (the first step to promotion in that department) in military language, it is taking a “mick” out of him.

11-: From the Leicester Mail (Leicester, Leicestershire, England) of Saturday 26th May 1923 [page 8, column 3]:

COUNTY POLICE NEWS.
Leicester Motor Cyclist Who Was “Tempted.”

Alleging that a driver of a motor car was trying to take the “micky” (rise) out of him, Clifford Smith (25), a baker, of 207, Uppingham Road, Leicester, who was summoned for riding a motor cycle in a dangerous manner at Oadby, on May 8th, pleaded not guilty.
Sergt. Tooms said that he saw the defendant riding a motor cycle from the direction of Leicester at 40 miles an hour. Defendant almost collided with a horse and dray. When interviewed by the police defendant said, “It’s like this, a man in a motor car tried to take the ‘micky’ out of me, and I just opened out and took him down. I thought the road was clear, or I should not have done it.”
Defendant told the Court that he had a young lady on the back of the machine. As they were going up a hill at a steady pace a man driving a motor car passed them and the driver turned round and laughed. The young lady said “I should not stand that,” and then he was tempted. He could not go the speed alleged with a 2¾ Douglas and a lady on the back.
The Clerk: It all depends upon the size of the lady. (Laughter.)
Defendant was fined £3 or 25 days, and the licence was ordered to be endorsed.

12-: From the Daily Herald (London, England) of Monday 28th May 1923 [page 7, column 5]:

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 author and Soho dandy Julian Maclaren-Ross (1912-1964):

“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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