Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

Hello everybody,

I’ve just finished the first week of classes here, so my apologies for the lapse in posting. However, there’s always more interesting language to explore.

This week, I was asked about the origin of the term “tongue-in-cheek”. For those unfamiliar with the term, it’s an adjective describing a thing or action as less-than-serious, or indicating that the speaker was kidding for a certain remark. Here’s an example of its use (involving a good deal more sexual harassment than one might expect) from the EnronSent Corpus:

oh, you don’t know the half of it. Look for baby #5 from the baby machine to be conceived by next x-mas. Oh, yeah! She has repeatedly dropped hints that she would like to have another one. Mark it down.

See my typical tongue-in-cheek response below.

“WOW! I’m sure you’re not having any pre-marital #$%! as to save that “special moment” until after the ceremony.”

Charming, no?

Moving on, it was surprisingly absent from my normal sources for etymology (the study of word origins), OS X’s built in dictionary, and my pocket etymology dictionary for Palm OS. However, Google (and by association, Wikipedia) prevailed: Origin of the term

The term first appeared in print in the book The Ingoldsby Legends by Richard Harris Barham, published in 1845. The author uses the term describing a Frenchman:

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.

There you have it. Single paragraph that spawned a phenomenon.

Now, the curious part is why “tongue in cheek” means what it does. Here’s the only explanation I’ve found:

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.

Personally, I’ve never seen anybody do that, but hey, whatever. If you’ve got a better idea why this means what it means, feel free to leave a comment!

I’ve got my own theory, though. Try talking with your tongue in your cheek. It didn’t work, but your attempt was likely funny to the people standing around you. See, tongue-in-cheek is funny.


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