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The Fine Print
ISSN 1832-8871 ISSUE 4, AUGUST 2007
Professional Editors’ Association (NSW)
Taboo, censoring and the human brain 6
Kate Burridge and Keith Allan
Tabooed expressions include sexual and scatological obscenities, ethnic
slurs, insults, name-calling, profanity, blasphemy, slang, jargon, vulgarities of all kinds, even the forbidden words of non-standard grammar.
‘Taking the mickey’ 20 Jessica Milner Davis Humour can be dangerous, as well as entertaining. Its retaliative effects ensure that joking provides a satisfying and effective (but not always gentle) way of taking another individual or group down a peg or two.
Talking with Kevin Hart 28 Shaoyang Zhang In some ways the experience of writing poems resembles the experience of prayer. In both states there is an extreme attentiveness, an openness to experience that is also a deep calm.
Three poems 36 Bei Ling Silence Resting place Banishment The accidental editor 40 Rae Luckie For the participants on our journey to Burma, there was a void—a missing story that each one needed in order to come to terms with their own lives. All said the journey had eased their loss. After living with them through this intense experience, I wanted to make that sense of resolution ‘concrete’.
Indexing—ways of working 44 ABCDEF now and into the future GHIJKLM Glenda Browne NOPQRST Although there is one general approach to indexing there are many UVWXYZ variations in the way we work depending on our own styles, our clients, the work and the budget.
Word thieves 51 Paul Bennett Just as people steal cattle from herds, people steal words from English, and if somebody tells me that I have no right to stand in the way of a changing language, I reply that they have no right to steal words of which I am a part owner.
A s the summer Parliamentary break loomed in Canberra in December 2006, the Federal Attorney-General, Hon. Philip Ruddock persuaded himself to defend a brave Australian tradition with some remarkable amendments to existing Copyright Law. Alone among the nations of the world, Australia will now provide legal protection for those who might otherwise be infringing intellectual property rights—if they are doing so for the purposes of satire and parody. Writing on 30 November in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph (and elsewhere), the Attorney-General explained
his reasons under the heading ‘Protecting Precious Parody’:
Australians have always had an irreverent streak. Our cartoonists ensure sacred cows don’t stay sacred for very long and comedians are merciless on those in public life. An integral part of their armoury is parody and satire—or, if you prefer, ‘taking the micky’ out of someone.
However, our copyright laws have until now done very little to protect the way people use others’ works or images to parody and satirise others in the name of entertainment.
I have a bill currently before the Senate which will ensure Australia’s fine tradition of satire is safe. There will be a parody and satire exception for what the law calls ‘fair dealing’. In circumstances that are fair, it means that groups like The Fanatics will be able to parody popular songs in response to the Barmy Army. It will mean they can encourage cricketers representing Australia by making a fair parody of musical works such as The Monkees’ Daydream Believer and adding some clever lyrics. I understand the Village People’s Go West and Robbie Williams’s Rock DJ will get the same treatment.
No doubt they did.
Setting aside the Attorney’s admirable display of ‘with-it-ness’ regarding pop culture, his appeal to Australian values is evident and it is unfortunate his remarks attracted little attention in the usual Christmas rush. When the country’s chief law officer identifies ‘Australia’s fine tradition of satire’ as something worth protecting and being proud of, adding that ‘Australians have always had an irreverent streak’, then surely an important blow has been struck for freedom and happiness and we can hold our heads a little higher as we enjoy our jokes. Even public officials such as Ministers of the Crown must take note, if they have not already, that they are fair game for satire and parody. Our custom of ‘taking the mickey’ out of those in power (in fair circumstances, of course, whatever that may mean) has received the ultimate accolade of endorsement by Australia’s Attorney-General.
Humour can in fact be a dangerous matter, as well as entertaining. Its retaliative effects ensure that joking provides a satisfying and effective (but not always gentle) way of taking another individual or group down a peg or two, and this is especially true when it is directed by one group (or a member of a group) already established, against people newly-arrived
THE FINE PRINT
TAKING THE MICKEYeither to the group or to a country, when they are experiencing the ‘shock of the new’. In the case of Australian humour, many collectors and commentators remark how frequently it is directed not just (respectably) at ourselves, but aggressively, even racially, at the others, both older and newer arrivals than ourselves (Davis and Crofts 1988; Abraham 2004).
Jokes about and slang terms for ‘the other’ abound in Australia (of course they also do elsewhere, as Christie Davies comparative studies of jokes around the world have shown, for example, Davies 1990, 1998, 2002). When Phillip Adams and Patrice Newell embarked on their multivolume collections of Australian jokes for Penguin, they commented in amazement on how many offensive (and racist) contemporary jokes they managed to collect and print without much outraged objection coming
their way. They remarked with considerable honesty:
We fear the ‘other’, what we deem to be foreign or alien, and so tell savage, uncivilised jokes about Aborigines, Jews, migrants….Jokes that are bigoted, blasphemous or phobic outnumber all other categories.
(1996 8) Although the impact of such jokes and joking may be well-intentioned, often it is hurtful, even deeply offensive. Many societies at different times evolve formal social conventions to counteract such effects. Nevertheless Australia seems to have responded with few such taboos or conventions to restrict the traditionally wide licence for joking and humour—at least not until the advent in the 1990s of political correctness, a movement which has sparked to some extent its own counter-revolution as comedians and individuals protest limitations on their self-expression (Matte: 1995). In fact, most collections of Australian jokes and humour make the point that, to be an Australian, it is necessary to embrace the aggressive forms of humour that they illustrate. As the British writer, Ken Hunt, ironically puts it, ‘[t]o live in Australia, Aussies have to have a sense of
humour. It’s a cheap form of entertainment and helps pass the time’ (1993:
Thus Australian humour seems to enjoy a vulgar, popular licence much wider than that found in many other cultures and groups. In 2000, I was invited to speak about Australian humour at a conference convened in Osaka.1 In trying to convey to the largely Japanese audience the essence of this anti-authoritarian and levelling humour, and also in writing later for an English-speaking audience about the complex and restrictive social conventions which surround the use of humour in Japan (2006), I realised that the most confronting thing about Australian humour for non-Australians is not necessarily its obscure, colloquial references (for example that swagmen are not hoboes, that billabongs and creeks are different bodies of water, that a dunny is not found indoors), nor even its crudity and offensiveness, but rather its ubiquitous and unavoidable occurrence, regardless of time, place and social space/s. For Australians, using and appreciating (or at least tolerating) humour is not so much permitted as compulsory.
Ours is in fact a culture which deploys humour quite openly as a weapon to identify those who are truly ‘at home’, both in the land and in the
THE FINE PRINT
TAKING THE MICKEYmainstream of society. In this sense, it is the conventions and style of the ‘jok(e)-ing’ rather than those of the jokes which indicate ‘Australianness’—that is, how Australians use humour, rather than the nature of the humour used. Visitors and new arrivals can and do find themselves under humorous attack from the moment they set foot in the country and often needing a degree of explanation and mediation to survive the experience.
It is possible this joking licence was inherited from rivalries and tensions between our original, disparate Irish and British settler groups, and reflected mockery of class and dialect, as well as of differing religious beliefs. It is also possible, as Inga Clendinnen has intriguingly suggested in Dancing with Strangers (2005), that over time, an introduced tradition of wry Cockney and Irish humour has subtly evolved to mirror one already then pre-existing among our Indigenous ancestors. Certainly her study shows how, in initial exchanges between the two cultures, there was surprising good-will towards the new arrivals, combined with mockery at their incapacity in the bush. Now, however, when most of our Indigenous communities suffer from a profound sense of powerlessness, joking back with ‘survival laughter’ may be more essential than ever. Urban myths such as those surrounding the origins of naming Melbourne’s annual Moomba Festival suggest examples of how taking the mickey might operate in retaliation against well-meaning attempts at cross-cultural understanding. It seems unlikely, according to students of the Victorian Aboriginal languages that the word moom + ba could ever signify ‘let’s get together and have fun’, as in the official Victorian Chamber of Commerce explanation. Something a good deal ruder seems more plausible. 2 Whatever the origins, this Aussie custom called ‘taking the mickey’ (baiting others, particularly the obviously ‘other’, with joking, teasing and insult) now enjoys such broad social permission that objecting in any particular instance is ineffective, even when the experience (as not infrequently happens) is offensive. Hidden cultural rules decree that when its victim either rejects the baiting or ‘doesn’t get it’, by definition the mickey has been taken. Thus the only truly effective response is to accept that the mickey has indeed been taken, to appreciate its skill and to reply in kind.
Most Australians believe that taking the mickey in this way is effectively their own national civil liberty. Most newcomers need to have this explained.
Although like the Attorney-General, I call this practice ‘taking the mickey’, authorities on British and Australian slang agree that this is a euphemism for an older term which has itself re-entered public discourse in more recent years—‘taking the piss’. Thus both may be heard in today’s Australia, perhaps reflecting something of a reverse generation gap in usage. According to The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (2006), the politer term owes its origin to rhyming slang and originally to Irish slang usage of the noun ‘mickey’ (which could mean both penis and vagina, as well as becoming an early Australian term for a young unbranded bull—see both The Macquarie Book of Slang (2000) and The Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang (1992) sv mickey).
THE FINE PRINT
TAKING THE MICKEYIn rhyming slang, the variants mike bliss and mickey bliss both stood for piss, and Partridge defines the (United Kingdom) meaning of ‘to take the mike/mickey [bliss]’ as ‘to take the piss’, ‘to make a fool of someone; to pull someone’s leg’. He explains that ‘TO PISS and hence deflate a bladder gives the central idea of deflation, in this case by making a fool of; perhaps coincidentally an inflated bladder (on a stick) is the mediaeval comedy prop associated with a fool’ (Partridge 2006: 1439). Franklyn’s Dictionary of Rhyming Slang (1961) agrees, as do Australian authorities; although The Macquarie Book of Slang (2000) offers slightly different definitions of the two terms—the original and the rhyming—as in ‘to take the piss out of (someone); to stir, to make fun of (someone)’ (181) and ‘to take the mickey out of: to make seem foolish, tease’ (152). The implication is that the cruder term might apply to a tougher form of ‘stirring’ or rebellious humour than mere teasing. This shading in meaning however is faint and is not borne out by other dictionaries such as the Oxford (1992) which finds the two interchangeable from 1945 onwards, defining ‘to take the piss (out of )’ as ‘[t]o make fun of, “take the mickey”’(169).
The connection between piss and bluster deserves a brief comment.
Francis Grose’s pioneering Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, capturing the eighteenth century canting terms of ‘Buckish Slang, University Wit, and
Pickpocket Eloquence’ records:
PISS. ‘He shall not piss my money against the wall’; he shall not have my money to spend in liquor.
PISS MAKER. A great drinker, one much given to liquor.
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.
Connotations like these make it easy to see piss as (pace Partridge) not merely inflationary, but also a worthless consequence of much drinking, a poor substitute for the real thing (as in piss-weak), something inviting exposure and laughter. Indeed elsewhere Partridge (1970) confirms this with an early twentieth century entry on ‘Piss and wind, as in “he’s all piss and wind!”. Empty talk; unsubstantiated boast(s)’.
In reviewing the printed evidence of usage, it is significant to note that the earliest examples of the rhyming slang term appear in memoirs intended to capture the violent rough and tumble of life in the early twentieth century in the market street of Hoxton, London, and in women’s gaols (George Ingram’s Cockney Cavalcade, 1935, and Joan Henry’s ‘Who Lie in Gaol’: Reminiscences of Life in Holloway and Askham Grange Prisons, 1952).