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What does "Tongue in Cheek" Mean?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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When something is described as “tongue in cheek,” it means that it should not be taken seriously. This type of humor is often wry, subtle, and sometimes difficult to catch, in contrast with more blatant forms of humor. In England in particular, such jokes, fiction, and films have been elevated to an art form, as this type of dry wit is especially valued in British culture.

This term appears to have originated in the 1800s, and it is a reference to the idea that one is pushing the tongue against the cheek to maintain a straight facial expression, or to prevent laughter that might give the joke away. Pressing the tongue against the side of the cheek can help to suppress a smile, and it also makes it hard to talk. People usually do not literally stick their tongues in their cheeks after saying such a joke, although they will sometimes explicitly state “tongue in cheek.”

Mastering the art of telling a joke with a straight face takes time. The idea behind tongue and cheek humor is that the joker wants people to take the joke seriously for a moment, until someone realizes the ludicrousness and points it out. In a mixed group, people who are in on the joke may help to perpetuate it, and while subtle jokes are not told with the intent to deceive, they are sometimes misinterpreted, resulting in confusion until the matter is straightened out.

Tongue in cheek humor may be ironic or facetious, or it may take the form of more obvious parody and comedy. Some filmmakers, for example, enjoy making films to lampoon the genres they work in. Horror movies, teen films, and action films are often ideally suited to such parodies, which can vary from the obvious to the subtle. Authors may also produce columns, poems, or books which are intended to be facetious, although some authors have ruffled feathers as a result of reader misunderstandings.

This type of humor is distinguished by its subtlety, rather than its flashiness. Some of the best only strikes people minutes or hours after the joke, and some people become known for their ironic senses of humor. Many people who engage in this type of humor also make fun of themselves in the process, with mildly self-deprecating humor that is sometimes designed to diffuse irritation among people who have trouble understanding less obvious humor.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon993133 — On Oct 25, 2015

But who the heck does the tongue-in-cheek thing? I have never seen it, and just now heard of it at age 40.

By OeKc05 — On Feb 21, 2013

Tongue in cheek humor is the best kind, in my opinion. I hate humor that tries too hard to be funny, and the beauty of tongue in cheek humor is that it hardly tries at all. In fact, you can miss it if you aren't in tune with it.

By wavy58 — On Feb 20, 2013

@lighth0se33 – I agree with you, but I also think that people who use tongue in cheek humor are just so prone to speaking that way that they can't help themselves. Dry wit just comes so naturally, so these people have to make an effort to keep their tongue in cheek in check.

It can be hard to talk to someone like this when you are really going through something sad. They seem to make light of the situation, but really, they are just trying to lighten the mood, and they don't seem to realize that this is offensive.

By lighth0se33 — On Feb 19, 2013

Tongue in cheek humor can get old after awhile. I've known a few people who could not stop spouting dry humor, and even when it came time to be serious, they kept right on. It has its place, but it needs to be put aside at times.

By Kristee — On Feb 18, 2013

I had a friend in high school who used to draw a tongue in cheek smiley face after a joke in her letters to me. It was so funny looking that it caught on, and several of our friends started using it.

You see a lot of regular smiley faces, surprised faces, or sad faces being drawn or sent in emails, but you rarely see a tongue in cheek smiley face. I find it charming and hilarious.

By anon176439 — On May 15, 2011

@kilorenz – of course, the younger generations couldn't have possibly learned the fine art of irony from their cynical and sarcastic parents/grandparents/aunts/uncles, et al.

By astor — On Jul 12, 2010

@kilorenz – I don’t think the “trend” towards tongue in cheek humor is a mark of a new generation at all. Rather, I think that younger adults, particularly those in their early twenties, are always prone to irony and sarcasm. It’s just the way young people are. Earnestness and seriousness often go hand in hand, and no age group is less serious than young people. It may just be that today’s youth have a slightly different brand of tongue in cheek humor.

By kilorenz — On Jul 12, 2010

A lot of older people accuse my generation (roughly, people born between the late 70’s to the early 90’s) of being overly-ironic. It’s hard for me to agree or disagree with this accusation. I know plenty of people with very ironic personalities. I know a few people who probably are too ironic for their own good in the sense that they almost never say an earnest word. Those kinds of people however, aren’t limited to the current generation of young adults. That type of behavior is often a method of emotional self-defense, and has been around for as long as mankind.

I do believe however, that irony is becoming something of a hallmark of today’s youth. Perhaps it isn’t such a bad thing. Maybe it’s just a manifestation of the influence of British culture? Let’s face it; every up and coming generation does something that annoys or completely baffles the older generations. Perhaps ridiculously ironic, tongue in cheek humor is ours.

By cmsmith10 — On Jul 11, 2010

The literal meaning is that if you have your tongue pressed into the cheek, it makes it easier to bite your tongue than to laugh so to not give away the fact that you are just kidding. If you laugh out loud, you might give the joke away.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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