It wasn’t too long ago that I began to notice speakers of British English (BrE) using various forms of “taking the piss.” This is a most curious expression and even in context the meaning is not readily apparent if you are unfamiliar with it. Does it mean “to be offended” or maybe “over the top”?
But recently I saw an American speaker use it in a mainstream publication, so if it’s becoming a Transatlantic crossover, we need to chase it down.
Here are a few examples spotted in the wild:
1 I was alive when Ibrahomvic took the piss out of England.
2 Beware of Gary—He will take the piss and make you laugh …
3 United Nations take the piss out of the Beatles with new reissue.
4 Do you notice when people take the piss out of you or try to mess with you?
This form is most closely aligned with the standard definition of “take the piss,” namely, “to poke fun at.” Note it comes in two flavors, one with “out of” and the other implying it.
Thus in 1, Ibrahomvic (soccer player) made England’s teams look foolish; in 2, Gary likes to tease; in 3, a band has some fun at the Fab Four’s expense; and 4 is self-explanatory.
If this were the end of the matter this would be a brief article. The story, however, gets more interesting. Look at the following:
5 Australia got new terrorist threat levels and everyone took the piss.
6 Grr, working for companies that take the Piss!
The first looks as if must mean something akin to “got upset” or “went crazy.” The second looks closer to “behave disreputably.” Here’s the context: “He worked it out that his brother would end up getting about £25 a day. Our drivers normally work about 50 hours a week, so do you think the md [manager] is taking the piss?”
Helpfully, there’s a Wiki entry for this, which notes that the phrase “taking the piss” means to take liberties at the expense of others, or to be unreasonable, and thus we can sort out what’s going on above: In 4 and 5, then, people are worried about being taken advantage of or disrespected in some way.
The two expressions are similar but not identical, and both are common in the UK, Ireland, South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia.
Note there is a less vulgar phrase, to “take the mick out of” somebody, but this doesn’t concern us here except that it’s an option with the same meaning as the first set (1–4) above, and is Cockney rhyming slang (taking the Mickey, ex. Mickey Bliss, thus piss).
So if you wanted to use it in the standard way, you might say something like, “Tina Fey’s mimicry really took the piss out of Sarah Palin.”
Word-sleuth Michael Quinion researched the etymology, which is fascinating. The phrase comes from an old term, “piss-proud,” i.e., having a morning erection stemming from a full bladder. An early citation from 1788: “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.”
Thus we have our sense of mockery, which probably led to the first sense (1–4); with sense (5–6) likely branching from it via linguistic drift. Little wonder I’ve found this term to be perplexing—the two idioms dance around each other and when a native BrE speaker deploys it you have to pay attention to determine which sense is meant.
Postscript: A heartfelt thank-you to editor Stan Carey (@StanCarey), who kindly looked this article over in an early draft. He adds the following: “Green’s Chambers Slang Dictionary offers five distinct senses for ‘take the piss (out of)’ v. (also piss-take), as follows:
1 [1930s+] to tease, esp. aggressively. 2 [1930s+] to attack verbally, to sneer or jeer at. 3 [1980s+] to make something up, to say something ludicrous, to make grand claims, to joke; e.g. he must be taking the piss, he must be joking (because what he is saying is so ridiculous or unfair etc). 4 [1990s+] of a person, to act absurdly, to play the fool. 5 [1990s+] of a man, to have sexual intercourse.”
We can exclude sense 5 from this discussion as being uncommon, and both chief senses noted above in the main article embrace the other 4 adequately.
Post-postscript: Reader Paul Rhodes spotted an error – example 5 in the main body means “and Australians mocked it roundly.” So it belongs in the first set (1-4). I regret the error, but am leaving it in situ as an example of how difficult this idiom is to grasp *even when you know what it means.*