‘Tongue in cheek' is cut-and-dried phrase

Published: December 4, 2007
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A column in the Buckboard Flats Daily Jolt recently referred to something that was written "tongue and cheek.”

"I am accustomed to seeing the description written as ‘tongue in cheek,'” said Edwin Still of Edmond as Buck replaced his valve stems at Curly's Soonerco. "Surely the writer wouldn't confuse ‘in' with ‘and,' so the choice must be intended. Since the tongue anatomically is located within the cheeks, Buck might consider discussing what gave rise to using the phrase in this manner.”

Edwin's right. The authentic expression is "tongue in cheek.” "And” and "in” are often confused in expressions such as "tongue and groove” and "one and the same.” When in doubt, check the dictionary.

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. In 1845, the expression appeared in its present sense in a poem from "The Ingoldsby Legends,” a series of myths, legends and ghost stories by Richard Barham. It tells about a Frenchman who examined an English watch and "cried, ‘Superbe! Magnifique!' (With his tongue in his cheek).”

The most believable explanation for the origin is that in the 1700s, people would show contempt or skepticism by using the tongue to poke a bulge into the cheek.

By 1842, "tongue in cheek” had acquired its modern meaning: "Take this with a grain of salt; it's intended to be humorously ironic.”

"Burleigh Goodchaw always talks with his tongue in his cheek,” Hilda Ardmore said.

"That bulge is not his tongue,” Miss Lulabelle said. "It's a quid of tobacco.”

Send questions for Buck to columnist Gene Owens, 317 Braeburn Drive, Anderson, SC 29621, or e-mail BucksEnglish@aol.com. Please let Buck know what town you're from.



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