Have you ever wondered about the meaning of tongue-in-cheek … and perhaps where this bizarre phrase came from? Well, it dates from 1856 in that hyphenated version, taken from the less-succinct phrase “to speak with one’s tongue in one’s cheek,” which comes from 1758, meaning “to speak insincerely” with a connotation of wittiness and humor in there.
Now … why?
Well, it’s not absolutely clear, but the leading theory is that it came from a stage trick–that actors would literally put their tongue in their cheek to deliver certain lines, to make it clear that they were being amusingly insincere.
My husband and I were musing as to whether tongue-in-cheek and cheeky had any relation, which would make sense, right? The answer to that, however, is a firm “Well … yes and no.” There’s no direct correlation, but cheek has meant “insolent speech” since the 1840s, which means it makes sense that it would both turn into cheeky in 1859, right around the time actors also developed that stage trick. Coincidence? We can’t know for sure, but let’s just say they’re related. It’s more fun that way. 😉