A newspaper clipping from 1833, in which a tailor whose coat was stolen from a bowling alley advertises an offer to alter the coat to fit the thief

Tongue-in-cheek is an idiom that describes a humorous or sarcastic statement expressed in a serious manner.


The phrase originally expressed contempt, but by 1842 had acquired its modern meaning.[1][2][3] Early users of the phrase include Sir Walter Scott in his 1828 The Fair Maid of Perth.

The physical act of putting one's tongue into one's cheek once signified contempt.[4] For example, in Tobias Smollett's The Adventures of Roderick Random, which was published in 1748, the eponymous hero takes a coach to Bath and on the way apprehends a highwayman. This provokes an altercation with a less brave passenger:

He looked back 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.[5]

The phrase appears in 1828 in The Fair Maid of Perth by Sir Walter Scott:

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

It is not clear how Scott intended readers to understand the phrase.[1] The more modern ironic sense appeared in the 1842 poem "The Ingoldsby Legends" by the English clergyman Richard Barham, in which a Frenchman inspects a watch and cries:

'Superbe! Magnifique!' / (with his tongue in his cheek)[1]

The ironic usage originates with the idea of suppressed mirth—biting one's tongue to prevent an outburst of laughter.[6]

See also


  1. ^ a b c Owens, Gene (4 December 2007). "'Tongue in cheek' is cut-and-dried phrase". The Oklahoman. Phrases.org. Archived from the original on 2021-02-07.
  2. ^ Chay, H., Contrastive metaphor of Korean and English revealed in 'mouth' and 'tongue' expressions
  3. ^ Zoltan, I. G. (2006). "Use Your Body". Philologia.
  4. ^ Ayto, John (2009), From the Horse's Mouth, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-954379-3
  5. ^ Smollett, Tobias George (1780), The adventures of Roderick Random
  6. ^ Marshallsay, Nick (2005), The body language phrasebook, Collins & Brown, ISBN 978-1-84340-304-3