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9 January 2009
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TV and Radio Programmes - Balderdash and Piffle

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Who Were They? - Tricky Verdicts

wordhunt image
© The New Yorker 

Were Wordhunters taking the mickey with their theories?

The Wordhunt was inundated with theories on the origins of the phrase take the mickey, but without any evidence we couldn’t get them past the OED.

Tania Styles, OED Etymologist: It is generally much easier to identify an earlier example of a word or phrase than it is to pinpoint exactly how that expression came about. The two processes are closely linked - the quotation evidence of when, where, how, and by whom a word was first used acts as the touchstone by which we test possible etymological theories.

Several suggestions discussed in the programme work on the assumption that take the mickey (with its variants take the mick and take the mike) is a bowdlerized version of take the piss, with a more innocuous word replacing the offensive four-letter one. Exactly why mickey was considered an appropriate euphemism for piss is hotly disputed.

One theory suggests that mickey here is short for micturition, a medical term for urination. Take the micturition would work nicely as a sanitized version of take the piss in the same way that extract the urine does, and if we could show that it was being used in this way before take the mickey turns up in 1948, this argument would be a strong one. However, despite Wordhunters’ best efforts, no evidence has come to like to show that take the micturition ever existed as an idiom. Another point against this theory is that it fails to account for take the mike, the variant of this phrase which, as our knowledge stands, appears to be the earliest. Mick and mickey might be plausible shortenings of micturition but mike, I would argue, is not.

The most popular explanation for take the mickey states that it works as a euphemism for take the piss because Mickey Bliss was rhyming slang for piss. This would have the virtue of explaining why we get the variants take the mick, take the mike, and take the Michael. Yet we haven’t been able to find any independent evidence for Mickey Bliss being used to mean piss. Examples of Mr Bliss immortalized in rhyming slang before these phrases are first recorded in the 1930s and 40s would help his case, as would early examples of take the Mickey Bliss.

In fact though, a serious problem stands in the way of both these theories. The evidence we have so far suggests that take the mike (recorded in the OED from a1935) is in fact an older phrase than take the piss (recorded from 1945): we cannot be sure that take the mike was coined as an alteration of take the piss unless we can prove that phrase existed at the time. In the end then, what clinches the etymology of take the mickey might turn out to be an antedating of take the piss.

Why did the OED reject Wordhunt evidence on round robin?

Could Wordhunters have really unearthed evidence of a round robin to beat the OED by 44 years with the 1944 New Yorker cartoon (pictured above)? Sadly, this was not the case.

Peter Gilliver, OED Associate Editor: Over the years round robin has meant various kinds of document, but the one thing which the older meanings all have in common is that they had multiple signatories. These older meanings are still very much in use; and they certainly were in 1944, when the cartoon appeared. It's therefore much more reasonable to suppose that the cartoonist had that meaning of the word in mind, rather than a new meaning in which it's the recipients that are multiple - a meaning for which we have no other evidence until decades later.

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