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The idiom tongue-in-cheek refers to a humorous or sarcastic statement expressed in a mock serious manner.

Idiom combination of words that has a figurative meaning

An idiom is a phrase or an expression that has a figurative, or sometimes literal, meaning. Categorized as formulaic language, an idiom's figurative meaning is different from the literal meaning. There are thousands of idioms, occurring frequently in all languages. It is estimated that there are at least twenty-five thousand idiomatic expressions in the English language.



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 .

<i>The Fair Maid of Perth</i> novel by Walter Scott

The Fair Maid of Perth is a novel by Sir Walter Scott. Inspired by the strange, but historically true, story of the Battle of the North Inch, it is set in Perth – known at the time as Saint John's Toun, i.e. John's Town) and other parts of Scotland around 1400.

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:

Tongue mouth organ that tastes and facilitates speech

The tongue is a muscular organ in the mouth of most vertebrates that manipulates food for mastication, and is used in the act of swallowing. It is of importance in the digestive system and is the primary organ of taste in the gustatory system. The tongue's upper surface (dorsum) is covered by taste buds housed in numerous lingual papillae. It is sensitive and kept moist by saliva, and is richly supplied with nerves and blood vessels. The tongue also serves as a natural means of cleaning the teeth. A major function of the tongue is the enabling of speech in humans and vocalization in other animals.

Cheek part of the head

The cheeks constitute the area of the face below the eyes and between the nose and the left or right ear. "Buccal" means relating to the cheek. In humans, the region is innervated by the buccal nerve. The area between the inside of the cheek and the teeth and gums is called the vestibule or buccal pouch or buccal cavity and forms part of the mouth. In other animals the cheeks may also be referred to as jowls.

Tobias Smollett 18th-century poet and author from Scotland

Tobias George Smollett was a Scottish poet and author. He was best known for his picaresque novels, such as The Adventures of Roderick Random (1748) and The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle (1751), and The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771), which influenced later novelists including Charles Dickens. His novels were amended liberally by printers; a definitive edition of each of his works was edited by Dr O. M. Brack, Jr, to correct variants.

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's not clear how Scott intended readers to understand the phrase. [1] The more modern ironic sense appears 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 mirthbiting one's tongue to prevent an outburst of laughter. [6]

See also

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The Fair Maid of Perth is a 1923 British silent adventure film directed by Edwin Greenwood and starring Russell Thorndike, Sylvia Caine and Lionel d'Aragon. It was made at Beaconsfield Studios, and based on the 1828 novel The Fair Maid of Perth by Sir Walter Scott.

Events from the year 1828 in Scotland.


  1. 1 2 3 Owens, Gene (4 December 2007). "'Tongue in cheek' is cut-and-dried phrase". The Oklahoman. ... Novelist Sir Walter Scott used 'tongue in cheek' as early as 1828 in 'The Fair Maid of Perth,' but it isn't clear what he meant.
  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