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This phrase alludes to the facial expression created by putting one's tongue in one's cheek.

The term first appeared in print in Walter Scott's 1828 Fair Maid of Perth: "The fellow who gave this all-hail thrust his tongue in his cheek to some scapegraces like himself."

It isn't entirely clear that Scott was using the phrase with the modern, rather than a literal, sense. A later citation from Richard Barham's 1845 The Ingoldsby Legends is unambiguous:

He fell to admiring his friend's English watch.
He examined the face,
And the back of the case,
And the young Lady's portrait there, done on enamel, he
Saw by the likeness was one of the family;
Cried 'Superbe! Magnifique!' (With his tongue in his cheek)
Then he open'd the case, just to take a peep in it, and
Seized the occasion to pop back the minute hand.


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tongue-in-cheek (comparative more tongue-in-cheek, superlative most tongue-in-cheek)

  1. (idiomatic) Not intended seriously; jocular or humorous.
    He gave a tongue-in-cheek explanation of why the sky was blue, offering a theory about some primordial discount on light blue paint.




tongue-in-cheek (not comparable)

  1. (obsolete) With contempt.
  2. With irony.
    He portrayed them tongue-in-cheek as great lawgivers, as Solons.

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