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The figurative idiom tongue-in-cheek means meant or expressed ironically or facetiously. The expression has origins in 18th-century England, and it originally referred to a common facial expression used to express contempt. Since then, the contempt-related connotations have mostly disappeared (along with the facial expression, as far as we can tell), and the word mostly denotes irony and facetiousness. Anything said tongue-in-cheek is not to be taken at face value.


Tongue-in-cheek generally follows the rules for phrasal adjectives, but not always. When the phrase precedes the noun it modifies, it is usually hyphenated—for example:

Clocks on her built-in bookcases are a tongue-in-cheek joke about her constant tardiness, he said. [Los Angeles Times]

The point of Spurlock’s tongue-in-cheek documentary is to show how omnipresent corporate interests and branding are in all forms of entertainment. [Globe and Mail]

But unlike most phrasal adjectives, tongue-in-cheek is often hyphenated even when it follows the noun it modifies, especially when it’s simply a synonym of sarcastic, sarcastically, ironic, or ironically:

But while his tone is tongue-in-cheek, his point is clear enough. [Financial Times]

But this is done tongue-in-cheek, not seriously. [Wired]

A somewhat tongue-in-cheek adage attributed to Shackleton came to mind: Better to be a live donkey than a dead lion. [New York Times]

And many writers smartly omit the hyphens when tongue in cheek is an adjective phrase (rather than a phrasal adjective) with tongue and in cheek treated as separate grammatical units—for example:

Lievremont had created headlines in the build-up to the game by stating, with tongue in cheek, his dislike for ‘insular’ England. [Daily Mail]

“I wanted to be with her friends all the time and she wouldn’t let me,” he said, tongue in cheek. [Forbes]

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