“Taking the Piss”

Longtime friend of NOOBs Wes Davis reports that when he saw Todd Snider in concert recently, the (American) singer said something about “extolling the virtues of taking the piss out of anyone who extols virtues.”

The OED defines “to take the piss (out of)” as: “to make fun (of), to mock, deride, satirize.” One doesn’t come across the expression very much in the U.S. The only time it has appeared in the New York Times (other than readers’ online comments) was in a quote from “a British newspaperman,” in a 2006 article about Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz’s  approach to Formula One racing– ”He’s taking the piss out of the sport because the sport is very up itself.” (Note to self: find out what up itself means.)

The author Bill Bryson, who deserves (if he doesn’t actually have) dual U.K.-U.S. citizenship, has observed, of Americans: “Wit, and particularly the dry, ironic, taking-the-piss sort of wit, was completely beyond them. (Do you know that there isn’t even an equivalent in American speech for ‘taking the piss’?) Yet here in Britain it is such a fundamental part of daily life that you scarcely notice it.”

I’m not so sure if Bryson was taking the piss, or not, which may prove his point.


29 thoughts on ““Taking the Piss”

  1. Er, there are myriad terms for taking the piss – goofing on, kidding, scoffing on, pulling one’s leg, joshing one, f__king with…

    1. Taking the piss actually has two contexts, which isn’t really mentioned in the definition. In its first usage taking the piss is roughly equivalent to the terms you mention; friends teasing one another are ‘taking the piss’.
      The second context happens when someone is trying to get away with a statement or action that is (to the other person, ridiculous) – a low-ball offer, for example, could be construed as taking the piss.

  2. The daily acceptable version is ‘taking the mickey’. (Rhyming slang – Mickey Bliss = piss). Who Mickey Bliss was I have no idea but he’s no doubt proud to have given his name in such a way.

  3. “To be up itself” means to be very snooty, to have a sense that it’s incredibly important and fashionable and that everyone else should accept the fact. It is derogatory. You can use it in ways like “she’s a bit up herself these days since she moved to [insert fashionable but probably tacky place here]”. The phrase is especially used when you think you are more important/cool/fashionable than you really are.

    1. If you were to describe someone as up him/her self then the implication would be sexual. Indeed you sometimes come across phrases like “he’s so far up his own are that….”

      1. I beg to differ. English humour has had a scatalogical aspect for a very long time (Chaucer is just about the earliest example I can think of, off the top of my head – but my guess is that with a little research, I could come up with earlier examples), and although there must of course be an underlying sexual aspect to scatology in English humour – its use does not always have a sexual implication for either the subject or the object of the humour. Certainly “taking the piss”/”taking the mick” has been in common use for such a long time that any sexual implication has long been lost..

    2. Actually no! The posh version is” extracting the micturition”
      “Extracting the urine” is the arrempting to be posh but
      failing version.

  4. There’s also the expression “taking the Mickey” or “taking the Michael” which means the same thing. Some people I believe use “taking the Mickey” because they believe it’s a tad more genteel than “taking the piss”. But then one school of thought says that “taking the Mickey” is simply Cockney rhyming slang (Mickey Bliss = Piss). Oops.

  5. I can’t take Bryson at his word that there’s no English equivalent, when he regurgitated the Eskimos/words for snow drivel in the introduction to The Mother Tongue. So not exactly an authority on language.

  6. I love this expression, and yes Mr Bryson is correct. There really isn’t an American equivalent. Unfortunately, we Americans aren’t as skilled in the fine art of sarcasm as our British counterparts are! I find that in a lot of my daily interactions, my jokes and subtle jibes fall either on deaf or unaccustomed ears. Too bad, because America is filled with people who need the piss taken out of them!

    1. As an American living in the UK, I’ve had Brits miss my use of sarcasm or irony on many occasions- I think because there is this mistaken idea that Americans do not do sarcasm. We do sarcasm, but if we are taking the piss out of someone or something that we actually like we may try to soften it with “just kidding” or “I tease because I love”. We also tend to do Sarcasm Voice so that it is really obvious that we’re not being serious. In the UK, snark is more likely to be deadpan, people take the piss out of themselves and their friends quite (US usage to mean Very, not UK usage to mean Fairly) frequently, and the softening phrases aren’t used nearly as much

      1. Susan, Americans are just too nice. If you make a sarcastic comment, and then add “just kidding”, well, it’s just not sarcastic.Sorry.

  7. “Up itself” is shorthand for “disappear up his/her own arse/backside”. (viz, twist round so that his head (followed rapidly by the rest of the body) disappears … Well, I am sure you get the visual effect).

    Means pretentious.

    We English love aphorisms that involve bottoms. Not only do people disappear up their own bottoms. They also have poles shoved up them, objects are placed where “the sun doesn’t shine” – and I could continue forever.

  8. “Up himself”: takes himself a bit too seriously, whereas “snooty” is more believes himself to be superior, or “stuck-up”: in this case, it’s the nose being referred to.

  9. Not sure it’s just we Brits who are bottom-obsessed (see this old sketch from Fry and Laurie)

    NB Hugh Laurie must have worked on his accent a tad before he auditioned for the job at “House”!

  10. While the phrase is indeed rare in the U.S., I suspect it would have a few more N.Y. Times appearances if it were not perceived as having an off-color word in it.

  11. The Urban Dictionary definition of “breaking my balls” is to give someone a really hard time. If that’s so, I think “taking the piss” is a tad more “dry”. Is is it joke at someone’s expense, or isn’t it? It needs to be said straight-faced.

  12. When a nurse collected my husband’s urine sample he said, dryly, “Now you’re just taking the piss.”

  13. There is also the expression ‘piss off’, which when I first used it-humerously; I didn’t want to get shot- while working for the US Army in the ’70s, was greeted with some hilarity.
    It seems to have settled in nicely in over there. The ‘Straight Dope’ website used ‘Now piss off’ to answer a rather cheeky correspondent who had offended Cecil only this week.

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