Tongue-in-cheek (Origin)

by Craig Shrives

What Is the Origin of the Saying "Tongue-in-cheek"?

The term "tongue-in-cheek" means not to be taken seriously. In other words, it means "jokingly" or "not really."
Tongue-in-cheek (Origin)

Examples of Use:

  • Even on the most serious ballads, I'll throw in a tongue-in-cheek remark. (Songwriter Brad Paisley)
  • I've said a lot of stuff in the past, but not with any intentions to hurt anybody. It's all a bit tongue-in-cheek. (Boxer Tyson Fury)
  • It's a very good time for horror. This business certainly has changed, but there's still room for serious horror films. Look at "28 Days Later." That's not a tongue-in-cheek picture. (Film maker John Carpenter)
The idiom "tongue in cheek" refers to the practice of creating a bulge in your cheek with your tongue. This facial gesture means that the words just spoken were not to be taken seriously. Therefore, the tongue-in-cheek motion is similar to a sly wink intended to mean "we know better, don't we?"

Of interest, some claim that creating a bulge in your face is designed to ensure the words are not uttered "with a straight face" (i.e., in all seriousness).

The first description of the tongue-in-cheek gesture appeared in Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott's 1828 book "The Fair Maid of Perth":
  • "The fellow who gave this all-hail thrust his tongue in his cheek to some scapegraces like himself."
It remains unclear whether Scott intended this to mean "not really." However, a later citation by English poet Richard Barham in his 1845 collection of stories and poems "The Ingoldsby Legends" clearly uses the phrase in its modern meaning:
  • "And the young Lady's portrait there, done on enamel, he
    Saw by the likeness was one of the family;
    Cried 'Superbe! Magnifique!' (With his tongue in his cheek)
    Then he open'd the case, just to take a peep in it, and
    Seized the occasion to pop back the minute hand."
From a grammatical perspective, "tongue in cheek" is frequently used as an adverb and as an adjective. For example:
  • I relayed the message tongue in cheek.
  • (In this sentence, "tongue in cheek" is an adverb. It modifies the verb "relayed." Note there are no hyphens.)
  • I relayed a tongue-in-cheek message.
  • (This time, "tongue-in-cheek" is an adjective. It modifies the noun "message." Note the words are joined with hyphens. This shows the words are functioning as a single adjective. It's called a compound adjective.)

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See Also

What are idioms? What is figurative language? A list of common grammar errors A list of easily confused words A list of sayings and proverbs

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