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Language Arts

Tongue in Cheek

Like with many of the popular sayings we explore on, the origin is often unknown. The popular phrase -tongue in cheek- is one of those sayings. This article takes a look at the various meanings and origin behind the popular phrase - tongue in cheek.

Today's definition of the idiom "tongue in cheek" means to is to say something in an ironic tone or say something that is not meant to be taken seriously; a facetious comment. This is not the original meaning of the phrase however.  One idea behind the origination of tongue in cheek is that it is actually derived from the 18th century. It meant to literally stick your tongue in your cheek as a sign of contempt. An example of this meaning is referenced in the 1748 publication of Tobias George Smollett's "The Adventures of Roderick Random" by Tobias George Smollett: 

"He looked black and pronounced with a faltering voice, 'O! 'tis very well - damn my blood! I shall find a time.' I signified my contempt of him by thrusting my tongue in my cheek, which humbled him so much, that he scarce swore another oath aloud during the whole journey." 
It is uncertain among scholars and historians when the popular term's definition changed from describing an act of contempt to words of intended irony or humor. However, there is possible evidence of the tongue in cheek expression we know today being used in 1828. The phrase tongue in cheek, appeared in print in the "The Fair Maid of Perth," written by Sir Walter Scott: 
"The fellow who gave this all-hail thrust his tongue in his cheek to some scapegraces like himself."
However, it is uncertain whether or not if he actually made a reference to the modern day meaning of tongue in cheek. Later, Richard Barham made a reference to the meaning we know now of the popular idiom in his work entitled, "The Ingolsby Legends" written in 1845:
"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.
While its origin is uncertain, when someone says something tongue in cheek, you can be certain they mean it without seriousness."
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