The Meaning of Tongue in Cheek: What It Is and How To Use It

What does it mean when someone does or says something in a tongue in cheek way? This article covers the meaning of tongue in cheek and how to use it!

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What does it mean when a person says something in a tongue in cheek way or when a comment is tongue in cheek? This article will cover several different topics related to the term tongue in cheek, including the meaning of tongue in cheek, its origin, synonyms, antonyms, examples of sentences, and translations. Ready to get started?

What Does the Term Tongue in Cheek Mean?

According to Collins English Dictionary, the term tongue in cheek is an adjective that means lighthearted, joking, or not serious. This modern ironic usage is fairly recent. While it is always used in an ironic sense in its current contemporary meaning, early adopters of the phrase used it to mean having serious contempt.

What Is the Origin of Tongue in Cheek?

The first usage of the phrase tongue in cheek was in “The Fair Maid of Perth” by Sir Walter Scott, according to Your Dictionary. The quote from the 1828 novel is as follows: “The fellow who (has) gave this all-hail thrust his tongue in his cheek […] to some scapegraces like himself.”

This term was later used in the 1845 “The Ingoldsby Legends,” a poem by English clergyman Richard Barham. Here, it was used to imply laughter when a Frenchman cries out, “Superbe! Magnifique!” with his tongue in cheek. In this case, he uses his tongue in his cheek to prevent an outburst of laughter and mirth as he mocks a watch.

Prior to these appearances, the term was used to express contempt in Adventures of Roderick Random, a 1748 novel by Scottish author Tobias Smollett. In this novel, the term is quoted as follows by a highwayman when the protagonist and eponymous hero is on his way to Bath in a coach: “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 […] that he scarce swore another oath (said) aloud during the whole journey.”

What Are Examples of Tongue in Cheek?

Tongue in cheek can be used to describe a sarcastic or joking comment in numerous circumstances. The best way to learn the definition of tongue in cheek is to practice using it in a sentence. The below sentences contain examples of tongue in cheek that you can study. Then, you can try using (or being) tongue in cheek in a sentence yourself!

The man gave a tongue in cheek explanation about the primordial discount on blue paint he used for the young lady’s portrait with the flute; his friends, however, could not keep a straight face.

The brave passenger gave a tongue in cheek reply to the gunman to incite an altercation, but the rest of the passengers spoke with a pleasant tongue to appease him.

They did not realize she was using tongue in cheek humor and took her statements at face value when they should have taken them with a pinch of salt.

What Are Translations of Tongue in Cheek?

While the term tongue in cheek is a strictly English phrase, there are different words that can be used in other languages to mean tongue in cheek, joking, or sarcastic. The below translations can be used when talking to a person who does not speak English about something that is tongue in cheek:

  • Danish: sarkastisk
  • Urdu: طارق
  • Icelandic: sarkastic
  • Bulgarian: саркастичен
  • Estonian: sarkastiline
  • Portuguese (Brazil): sarcástico
  • Japanese: 皮肉な
  • Korean: 냉소적이다
  • Chinese (Taiwan): 諷刺
  • Serbian: саркастичан
  • Swedish: sarkastisk
  • Romanian: sarcastic
  • Arabic: ساخر
  • Gujarati: દુ: ખી
  • Telugu: వ్యంగ్య
  • Malay: sindiran
  • Marathi: उपहास
  • Vietnamese: mỉa mai
  • Polish: sarkastyczny
  • Czech: sarkastický
  • Slovak: sarkastický
  • German: sarkastisch
  • Lithuanian: Sarkastiškas
  • Filipino: mapanlinlang
  • French: sarcastique
  • Hebrew: עוקצני
  • Indonesian: sarkastik
  • Latvian: sarkastisks
  • Dutch: sarcastisch
  • Finnish: sarkastinen
  • Catalan: sarcàstic
  • Malayalam: കുത്തുവാക്കായ
  • Amharic: sarcastic
  • Thai: ประชดประชัน
  • Basque: trufari
  • Slovenian: sarkastic.
  • Croatian: sarkastičan
  • Tamil: வெறித்திருத்தல்
  • Italian: sarcastico
  • Hungarian: szarkasztikus
  • Greek: σαρκαστικός
  • Hindi: व्यंग्यपूर्ण
  • Turkish: alaycı
  • Ukrainian: саркастичний
  • Chinese (PRC): 讽刺
  • Welsh: sarcastig
  • Spanish: sarcástico
  • Portuguese (Portugal): sarcástico
  • Kannada: ಕಟುವಾದ
  • Norwegian: sarkastisk
  • Russian: саркастический

What Are Synonyms of the Word Tongue in Cheek?

The phrase tongue in cheek may not be a phrase that everyone knows. If you are speaking to a person who does not know the definition of tongue in cheek, it can be helpful to know a synonym to use in its place for clarity. This list of tongue in cheek synonyms from Power Thesaurus can help get you started. 

  • amusing
  • as a joke
  • as a tease
  • comic
  • comical
  • derisive
  • droll
  • facetious
  • flippant
  • for a joke
  • for a laugh
  • for fun
  • frivolous
  • funny
  • glib
  • hilarious
  • humorous
  • in an ironic way
  • in fun
  • in jest
  • insincerity
  • ironic
  • ironical
  • ironically
  • jocular
  • jokey
  • joking
  • jokingly
  • mockery
  • not seriously
  • playful
  • playfully
  • satirical
  • whimsical

What Are Antonyms of the Word Tongue in Cheek?

If something is not tongue in cheek but rather serious or candid, Power Thesaurus provides a list of antonyms that you can use:

  • be serious
  • candid
  • dinkum
  • direct
  • earnest
  • frank
  • genuine
  • honest
  • honest injun
  • honestly
  • I mean it
  • in earnest
  • joking apart
  • joking aside
  • meaning what one says
  • no joke
  • no joking
  • on the level
  • on the up and up
  • open
  • scout’s honor
  • serious
  • seriously
  • sincere
  • straight
  • straight up
  • straightforward
  • truly
  • trustworthy
  • truthful


The idiom tongue in cheek is used to describe a sarcastic statement or joking comment. Tongue in cheek was first used to mean having contempt but is now used ironically to mean something funny.


  1. Tongue in cheek Meaning | Your Dictionary 
  2. 122 Words and Phrases for Tongue In Cheek | Power Thesaurus 
  3. Tongue In Cheek antonyms | Power Thesaurus 
  4. Tongue in cheek definition and meaning | Collins English Dictionary