Tongue in cheek

Example in use: With her tongue very much in her cheek, and keeping a very straight face, she exclaimed, “Why yes! I DO think Mr Trump would make an excellent president!”

Meaning: something that is said as a joke even if you keep a straight face to make it look like you are being serious, something said in irony

Possible German equivalent: mit ironishchem Unterton

Possible origin: It is believed that this idiom has its roots in the 1700s when it was usual to show contempt for someone by pushing your tongue into your cheek so that this bulge would be seen from the outside. At some point over the years, this sign of scorn became a way to show irony or to describe talking about something in an ironic way.

In 1845 it appears in The Ingoldsby Legends in this form with a description of a Frenchman examining his friend’s English watch,

“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)”

No one really explains how the expression changed its meaning from scorn to irony but in English there are several ways of talking about stopping yourself from laughing at a joke – biting your lip, tongue or cheek - so there is some agreement that this might be the true origin of the form we use today.

Irony is a very common form of humour in British English although less so in other English speaking countries which can cause some confusion even among native speakers!

Tongue / ˌtʌŋ


Welcome again to our weekly series that hopes to go behind the scenes of some rather typical English expressions.