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Cheek by jowl

The jowl is the fleshy part of the lower jaw, so the idiom cheek by jowl is similar in meaning to cheek to cheek—that is, it means very close together. But while cheek to cheek is usually good—it’s often used to describe dancing couples—cheek by jowl is usually negative. It’s often used to describe cramped living conditions.

An early instance of cheek by jowl is found in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

Follow! nay, I’ll go with thee, cheek by jowl.

But Shakespeare did not originate the phrase. That play was written in the 1590s, and the Oxford English Dictionary lists one example from 1577 and others from around the same time as Shakespeare’s play.


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Cheek by jowl is often hyphenated, but there’s no good reason for this, except when it’s a phrasal adjective preceding what it modifies (e.g., cheek-by-jowl living conditions).

Examples

Living in Manhattan practically forces residents to live cheek by jowl, and sometimes that proximity creates disputes.” [The Real Deal New York]

For a country on the Balkan fringes of Europe – cheek by jowl with the Ottoman nemesis – the European anchor has existential significance. [Telegraph]

Today, steaming bowls and heaped plates are still delivered to the cheek-by-jowl laminate tables. [Northern Weekly (link now dead)]

It sat cheek by jowl with Peter Erskine’s maple Yamaha tour kit from his Steely Dan days, yours for $8,500. [New York Times]

Rural idyll and rural reality cheek by jowl make for a strange mix, but at least it’s unique. [Guardian]

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