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“The Great Australian Pastime”: Pragmatic and Semantic Perspectives on Taking the Piss

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Studies in Ethnopragmatics, Cultural Semantics, and Intercultural Communication

Abstract

The claim that Australians place considerable value on not taking oneself too seriously lies at the heart of discourses on Anglo-Australian identity. While laughter and playful talk are ubiquitous across languages and cultures, Australians are claimed to pride themselves on being able to joke and laugh at themselves (and others) in almost any context, no matter how dire or serious the circumstances appear to be. One of the key practices that has often been noted is that of ‘taking the piss’, where the pretensions of others are (gleefully) punctured through cutting, mocking remarks. Yet despite its apparent importance for Australians, there has been surprisingly little empirical study of actual instances of it. This lacuna is arguably a consequence of the complexity of studying a phenomenon that is simultaneously semantic and pragmatic in character. Ethnopragmatics is one of the few extant approaches that is specifically designed to directly tackle this problem. In this approach, ‘semantic explications’, which address what a word or phrase means, provide the basis for proposing ‘cultural scripts’, which address what members of a culture are held to (normatively) do in social interaction and the cultural value placed on doing things in that way. In this chapter, we analyse data drawn from spoken corpora to address the question of whether “taking the piss” might be best approached as a kind of ‘semantic explication’ or as a ‘cultural script’, and what the consequences of framing it as one or other might be for research on the role of ‘humour’ more generally in social interaction amongst Australian speakers of English.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    The expressions taking the mickey and related taking the mick are generally defined as ‘politer’ versions of taking the piss. As we shall see, analysis of contemporary usage across Australian and British English suggests the former is used more frequently, especially in the case of Australian English. The earliest attested printed examples of both take the piss and take the mickey are post-World War Two according to the Oxford English Dictionary Online (Simpson 2018 [2006]). Folk etymologies suggest these two expressions were used earlier than this in speech (e.g. Ritchie 2014), but which emerged first has not yet been definitively established.

  2. 2.

    There are arguably many different ways in which one might attempt to categorize such expressions. Olivieri (2003: 16–17), for instance, divides ‘teasing-related’ expressions into four evaluative categories: antagonistic, anti-pretentious, aggressive, and artful. Our categorization of senses attested in dictionary definitions is only for rhetorical purposes.

  3. 3.

    The term kidding is not used in any of the definitions of taking the piss that we have examined, but it would appear what broadly underlies these various expressions is the notion of ‘kidding’ as recently defined by Goddard (2018).

  4. 4.

    One of the reviewers suggested that the meaning of taking the piss may have evolved over time. This is certainly a distinct possibility that is well worth further investigation. Our focus here, however, is on contemporary usage of the phrase.

  5. 5.

    We have elected to focus solely on the phrase taking the piss in this section, as it is the one that is arguably more relevant to speakers of contemporary Australian English, and also the phrase that has garnered attention in NSM. Just for the record, however, we found only 16 occurrences of taking the mickey/mick and 11 occurrences of take(s) the mickey/mick in the Australian component of the OEC (0.18 and 0.12 normalized frequencies, respectively; cf. Table 6.1). Notably, the expressions taking the mickey/mick (166 occurrences) and take(s) the mickey/mick (134 occurrences) are found more frequently in British English (0.33 and 0.27 normalized frequencies, respectively; cf. Table 6.1). These differences are well worth investigating in future research.

  6. 6.

    One slight complication with using raw frequencies was that we found a (relatively small) number of concordances were repeated through searches. These repetitions were discarded through manual inspection to avoid distortion of our results arising through the practice of re-posting and the like on the Web, as our interest was primarily in the range of contexts in which this expression appears.

  7. 7.

    We note that it is no longer possible to repeat Google searches and obtain reliable frequencies, as Google now uses search algorithms that are tailored to the search history of individual users (and likely unspecified communities of users). There remains, of course, the possibility of using or building Web-based corpora. One of the largest English-language Web corpora for use by researchers is the enTenTen15 Corpus (approximately 15.7 billion words) made available through Sketch Engine (see Haugh 2019), although this corpus does not yet allow for English variety-specific searches.

  8. 8.

    In subsequent work, however, Sinkeviciute (2017b: 54) has characterized taking the piss as arising when “jocularly making the target believe something that is untrue or, more frequently, by sending somebody up, i.e. making the target look silly”.

  9. 9.

    Notably, the negatively valenced descriptor put down was only used by a small number of the British interviewees, and not at all by any of the Australian interviewees (ibid.: 65).

  10. 10.

    This excerpt and the one following have been transcribed using standard CA transcription conventions (Jefferson 2004a; see also the appendix to Susanna Karlsson’s chapter in this volume) in order to allow readers access to specific details of timing, prosody, and non-verbal aspects of these interactions.

  11. 11.

    Following Goddard (2009: 35), this might be formulated as “I said it like people say something when they say it because they want someone to laugh [m].”

  12. 12.

    We would like to thank Roslyn Rowen for kindly sharing this data excerpt with us.

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Haugh, M., Weinglass, L. (2020). “The Great Australian Pastime”: Pragmatic and Semantic Perspectives on Taking the Piss. In: Mullan, K., Peeters, B., Sadow, L. (eds) Studies in Ethnopragmatics, Cultural Semantics, and Intercultural Communication. Springer, Singapore. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-32-9983-2_6

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