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Not that Mickey, a different one (Pic: Disney)
Not that Mickey, a different one (Pic: Disney)
Not that Mickey, a different one (Pic: Disney)

Before Twitter and hashtag games, before The Onion, before satirical stand-ups and waggish revues, Brits commonly expressed all emotions through the filter of mockery. No matter what the occasion, from a night in the pub to a wedding, from a funeral to a wartime foxhole, the truest, most reliable barometer of British affection was (and to some extent still is) finding something worth mocking in your nearest and dearest and doing so mercilessly. It’s sort of similar to a roast, only it happens all the time and everyone gets to have a go.

You can see it on Top Gear, three blokes who clearly have a lot of affection for one another, each one playfully behaving as if the others are buffoons. You have to be fairly secure in your friendship with someone to subject them to a barrage of insults (or genuinely not care if they like you). And that’s the stance good friends will take with one another rather than saying heartfelt things and issuing hugs all the time.

That instinct for affectionate mockery is what the Brits call taking the Mickey—or taking the Mick, for short—which is a euphemism for a ruder expression: taking the piss.

That’s the term that covers all banter (and existed long before everyone started calling it banter instead). It’s also used to set a boundary, so that one’s generosity is not taken for granted (as in “I said you could stay for a couple of nights, not a week! You’re taking the Mick!”) and as a term of outrage. If someone appears to have gone out of their way to obstruct or otherwise irk a Brit, they may find themselves yelling, “What is this? Are you taking the Mickey or something?” as if the only possible explanation for such a level of idiocy is an elaborate prank.

But why Mickey? It’s either rhyming slang, where Mickey Bliss (a name of unknown origin, sadly) means piss, or it’s a contraction of the word micturition, meaning “urination.” There’s some debate as to why urine needs removing in the first place, some claiming that the expression arose literally, from canal boatsmen delivering urine to the wool mills in Northern England. Others claim it derived from piss-proud, an older slang term for a gentleman’s morning erection. As these are often caused by liquid pressure on the bladder, taking the urine out of someone would deflate the owner, possibly even taking them down a peg or two.

Mickey isn’t the only euphemism in play for this term either. There’s extracting the urine, which pub bores use to smarmily avoid having to swear. They also use extracting the Michael for the same reason. It’s a bit of a dad joke, the sort of thing that would elicit a rolled eye rather than a conspiratorial rib-nudge, but it’s not the worst banter crime in the world.

The term banter crime might be, however.

See more:
Fraser’s Phrases: “What The Dickens”
Fraser’s Phrases: The Curious And Ancient Origins Of ‘Scot Free’
Fraser’s Phrases: Men Are From Mars, Blokes Are From Prison
Fraser’s Phrases: Five Slang Terms For The Head

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By Fraser McAlpine