Tongue in Cheek

Do you ever say or write a phrase and then stop and wonder about the word’s etymology?  Today I experienced such a moment.  The culprit?  "Tongue-in-Cheek" – I wondered if that gesture was anything like "wagging their heads" (in Bible times) or "I bite my thumb at you, Sir" (Shakespeare). 

Come to find out, it was more like the "crossed fingers" sign children make out in the schoolyard or Santa’s "laying his finger aside  (When I was a kid I thought it was "inside" his nose – no, I just made that up!  But that would have been funny.) of his nose" in Clement Clarke Moore’s "A Visit from St. Nicholas."

After I researched it, I would swear I’ve seen (perhaps an old BBC movie?) someone actually make this tongue-in-cheek gesture while giving a wink. 

According to the following, I probably did! 

This funny-sounding expression indicates that someone just told a joke or isn’t being serious! If someone says something "tongue-in-cheek," he or she is usually kidding. 

It’s believed that this saying was created by an English humorist in the 1800s. Most people have difficulty saying anything with their tongue in their cheek. But some people actually do stick their tongue against the inside of their cheek after saying a joke to show that they’re only kidding. –


In an ironic manner, not meant to be taken seriously.


This phrase clearly alludes to the facial expression created by putting one’s tongue in one’s cheek. This induces a wink (go on – try it), which has long been an indication that what is being said is to be taken with a pinch of salt. It may have been used to suppress laughter. ‘Tongue in cheek’ is the antithesis of the later phrase – ‘with a straight face’.

The term first appeared in print in ‘The Fair Maid of Perth’, by that inveterate coiner of phrases, Sir Walter Scott, 1828:

"The fellow who gave this all-hail thrust his tongue in his cheek to some scapegraces like himself."

It isn’t entirely clear that Scott was referring to the ironic use of the expression. A later citation from Richard Barham’s The Ingoldsby Legends, 1845 is unambiguous though:

He fell to admiring his friend’s English watch.
He examined the face,
And the back of the case,
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.
(with) tongue in cheek
in a humorously ironic, mocking, or insincere way


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