Uninformed Comment

Taking the piss

Posted in Grammar & usage, History, Humour by uninformedcomment on December 20, 2009

Those of us in the UK are familiar with the phrase “taking the piss”.  As the Oxford English Dictionary has it:

The OED gives us no clue as to the origin of the phrase.  However, there’s a sporting chance that it originated in coastal shipping off northern England.  Read on …

The need for urine

From the early 17th Century to the middle of the 19th, the town of Whitby, on the North Yorkshire coast, was the centre of a brisk trade in alum, made from a combination of the local slate and human urine.

Alum is a chemical with all sorts of uses, from cosmetics to food to medicine to fire blankets, but at least at first it was in great demand as an agent to make dyes for those Tudor clothes brighter and longer-lasting.  England used to import its alum from Italy, but Henry VIII had a famous argument with the Pope over Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragorn, which led ultimately to the establishment of the Church of England.  One of the effects of this tiff was that alum could no longer be imported from Italy.

Once it was found that alum could be manufactured in Whitby there was, of course, demand for raw materials.  Slate was easy, since it’s in great abundance in the cliffs there, but human urine was a different matter.

At first the urine was obtained locally, then further afield – from Newcastle to Hull – but eventually even the stout bladders of Geordies and Yorkshiremen combined couldn’t fulfil the need.  Alum production from slate requires large quantities of urine.

Why human urine?  My guess is that it’s simply too difficult to harvest the piss of animals.  Sure, you can tell a cow where to take a whizz, pointing at a bucket and gesticulating and everything, but she’ll look curiously at you for a while then continue pissing down her leg as she has always done.

Coastal shipping of human piss

It was time to turn to London.  “After all,” the thinking probably went, “those Cockneys are always full of piss.”  But London is a long way from Whitby – a long way to be carrying a bucket, certainly.  How to get the Cockney urine to North Yorkshire?

The answer lay in the existing coastal traffic arising from the transport of coal from Newcastle to London.  Having dumped their coal in east London, ships were returning up the coast empty.  Why not give them the job of ferrying barrels of piss to Whitby?  And that’s exactly what happened:

Coastal trade in coal and piss


Incidentally, the urine was left by Londoners in buckets on street corners, for which a small but adequate payment was made.  The contents of these were collected by wagons, in a bizarre reversal of the milk-round principle, and taken to the East End for barrelling and shipping.  Remember that pissing into a bucket on a street corner wouldn’t have been as grotesque a concept then as it would be now, since the normal arrangement would have been communal outside toilets on the ends of blocks of houses.

It would be interesting to know how the payments were shared between the various contributors to a bucket. Was it fairly distributed between men, women and children, or did the chap who’d been in the pub all evening get a bonus for his additional overnight micturations, for example?

And so …

Now, how do we get from there to the phrase “taking the piss”?

Apparently, the men working on the ships were coy about their unusual cargo and, when asked, would reply that they were transporting barrels of wine – I’d guess that the monks of Whitby Abbey, rather than the townspeople, would have been the supposed destination.  Whichever way, this gives us a possibility for the phrase’s origin:

Passer-by: “What have you got there?”

Mariner: “Wine, for the Abbey.”

Passer-by: “Nonsense!  You’re taking the piss!”

OK, it’s a stretch.  But it’s better than no clue at all, which is otherwise what we have.


2 Responses

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  1. Paul Madarasz said, on December 21, 2009 at 12:17 am

    The humo(U)r travels well, even though “piss” doesn’t have the same definition here. But we, who have been following the antics of the Rightpondians, have gotten with the jive, and believe me, we can take the piss as well as (well, maybe not quite as well as) you blokes. (and where the fuck did “take the mickey” come from?).

  2. uninformedcomment said, on December 21, 2009 at 1:58 pm

    > and where the fuck did “take the mickey” come from?

    The OED doesn’t offer any theories here either, but gives the first recorded usage as 1948. “Taking the piss” dates from 1945. Both are said by fictional servicemen, which led me to suppose a forces origin.

    The Phrase Finder, however, has this to say:

    It is sometimes reported that the phrase originates as a variant of the slang phrase ‘take the piss’ and the the ‘Mickey’ refers to micturate. This seems rather fanciful and there’s no evidence to support that view. It is now more generally accepted that the phrase came about as rhyming slang. ‘Taking the piss’ does play its part as the rhyming slang refers to a (yet to be identified) character called Mickey Bliss. So, ‘taking the piss’ became ‘taking the Mickey Bliss’ and then just ‘taking the Mickey’. An early citation of the longer form ‘taking the Mickey Bliss’ would be useful here, but I’ve not come across one.

    Taking the piss is reported as originating in the UK in the 1930s and ‘taking the Mickey’ probably came not long afterwards. The first form of the phrase in print – as ‘take the mike’ – comes from 1935, in George Ingram’s Cockney Cavalcade:

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