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An adjective expression that specifies a form of humor in which something is presented as though seriously, yet with thinly-veiled comic intentions that may be either quite obvious or quite subtle. This straight-faced humor may be wry, dry or knee-slappingly funny. It often uses irony, sarcasm, spoofery, charicature, or mockery, yet it is generally gentle and light-hearted rather than mean or vicious. Caustic or bitter attempts at tongue-in-cheek often fall flat.

The original expression is to do something (tell a story, etc.) ‘with tongue in cheek’. The popular explanation for the origin of this phrase is the practice of putting one’s tongue between the side teeth to press against the inner cheek so as to prevent laughing at a joke of one’s own or that of another. This is said to be used by stage performers. According to wordorigins.com, however, the phrase goes back to the middle of the 18th century, when thrusting one’s tongue against the cheek to create a visible bulge was used to show contempt for a person. The modern use was in place by 1842.

Words and phrases with similar meanings include humorous, facetious, joking, banter, poking fun at, doing a take-off on, kidding, and taking the piss out of (someone).


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WordNet 1.6 © Princeton University
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language