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Learn something new

September 13, 2022

It’s funny, isn’t it, the things you can discover while you’re out for a walk in the woods? And I’m not talking about flora and fauna discoveries, although those can be made, too.

I have no idea how Joe and I got on the subject. It think I might have accused Georgie of taking the piss. I certainly used the phrase, which prompted Joe to deliver one of his lines from A Divine Comedy: “You’re taking the piss, ain’t you? First you bring me a randy archbishop and now this – a goddamn hunchback!”

Which prompted us both to wonder what the origin of the phrase was. Why? Why would you be taking the piss? For what purpose? Where are you taking it? Of course you also say “taking the piss out of” something. Does that actually make more sense?

Unlike my mobile, carried solely for the purpose of taking photos…

… Joe’s actually does have a signal, so he decided to do some googling.

This led us to World Wide Words, where we discovered: “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, which is usually attributed to a full bladder (proud here being an obvious pun on its senses of something raised or projecting and of something in which one may take satisfaction).

“It’s first recorded, as so many such indecorous expressions are, in Francis Grose’s A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue; in the second edition of 1788 he wrote: ‘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.’

“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. It’s not recorded before the beginning of the twentieth century.”

Well, isn’t that fascinating? Not just the answer to our question, but also an introduction to a new phrase: piss-proud. (Although I have a vague feeling I might have heard someone being told not to be so piss-proud, I’m not entirely sure I’ve ever heard the term before.)

This logically led to wondering about taking the Mickey. Mickey Who? Why would you take him anywhere?

More googling ensued. Joe discovered it came from rhyming slang: Mickey Bliss. Oh, I get it! Mickey Bliss – taking the piss. Right. 

Joe needed a bit of help. “Well, me old China,” I said, “this has been interesting.” China plate – mate. He didn’t think he’d ever heard anyone say “give us a butcher’s” (butcher’s hook – look), but he did think he might have heard, with no idea what it meant, the expression “use your loaf” (loaf of bread – head).

Which led to a discussion about the 19th century origins of Cockney rhyming slang, used, as I suspected, by market traders and the criminal element to prevent the police understanding what they were saying.  

Was there an actual Mickey Bliss? No, there was not. 

There was, however, an actual Mickey Finn, but that’s another story.

From → Blog

  1. Donna permalink

    Oh, I do love me a bit of Cockney rhyming slang. Interestingly, while I’m familiar with “give us a butcher’s”, I can’t say I’ve ever heard “China plate” for mate. I’m well chuffed knowing that!

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