What does the idiom "tongue in cheek" mean?

You are wondering about the meaning of the phrase tongue in cheek, maybe you heard it in a TV show, movie or theater play. Although this idiom is not used very often, it enriches your capacity of expression and strengthens communication. In which case is the expression tongue in cheek used and what is its meaning?

Meaning of "tongue in cheek"


The phrase 'tongue in cheek' is an idiom that is used to describe an ironic and humorous statement or situation. It is often used to convey a subtle underlying message, and can be a way of expressing sarcasm or poking fun at a topic without directly attacking someone or something. The phrase comes from the physical gesture of putting one's tongue against their cheek, which is a sign of joking or teasing someone.


The phrase 'tongue in cheek' originated in the 17th century and was initially used to describe a physical gesture or facial expression that conveyed a sense of cynicism or sarcasm. In the early 19th century, the phrase began to be used more frequently as an idiom, signifying something that was said or done with a humorous or sarcastic intent. It is likely derived from an older phrase 'keep one's tongue in one's cheek', which is still used in British English to communicate irony and double meanings.


The phrase 'tongue in cheek' can be used to describe a variety of situations, from casual conversations to more serious interactions. It is typically used when someone wants to make a joke or irony without directly attacking or offending the other person. In addition, the phrase can be used to signal the audience that their comment should not be taken seriously and can help to lighten the mood in a situation.

Example Sentences

  • He said he was rich and famous, but I think he was just speaking tongue in cheek.
  • She was making a tongue in cheek comment when she said she was the smartest person in the room.
  • When I said I was the best at everything, I was only joking – it was tongue in cheek.

The meanings of the words in the "tongue in cheek" idiom

Idioms with similar meanings in different languages

"Barking up the wrong tree" is an English idiom that means to pursue a mistaken or misguided course of action. In German, the similar idiom is "Auf dem Holzweg sein," which translates to "To be on the wrong track." This idiom emphasizes the idea that when you are pursuing the wrong course of action, you are not going to achieve your desired outcome.


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