“It is tongue and cheek humor.”

How lovable is this?

We are dealing, clearly, with a student who has heard of “tongue-in-cheek” humor and may even know what the term refers to, but who has not actually seen the term written down or seen someone with his tongue in his cheek.

Perhaps, though, my student has done a little carpentry, or read up on antiques? …because lurking behind the error here is that excellent, eye-pleasing, and strong method of connecting two boards edge to edge, the tongue-and-groove joint.

In a situation of knowing them when I see them and understanding how they’re made but not being sufficiently confident to phrase it myself, I offer you this link to a nice demo of tongue and groove. This craftsman’s presentation is clear, straightforward, and good-humored. It is not, however, a tongue-in-cheek presentation, uttered “with insincerity, irony, or whimsical exaggeration,” as Webster’s puts it.

Wandering around the ether also brought me to a nightclub in Atlanta called the Tongue in Groove, which I don’t really want to spend much time contemplating, and an actors’ improv group in Philadelphia whose members claim to be “seamlessly connected” in their efforts (with a group portrait that I actually have to assume is tongue-in-cheek!).

My Uncle Charlie actually used to punctuate his sly jokes by thrusting his tongue into his cheek emphatically enough so I could see the bump, so tongue-in-cheek humor is no mystery to me. If you Google images of “tongue in cheek” you will see a wonderful gallery of people, from President Obama and Stephen Colbert to anonymous little kids, joining my uncle in the gesture.

Where did the expression come from? Any number of online sites will tell you; I particularly like this one because it offers a couple of literary examples, than which nothing could be finer. Most sites will suggest two possibilities, one based on an idea of keeping a straight face while speaking ironically and the other based on the idea of signalling a lie to a confederate—two contradictory theories, but never mind.

Do you suppose no friend or relative of my student ever indulged in shared irony or satirical utterance or false sincerity in his company, such that keeping a straight face necessitated actually biting the tongue, or signalling the real meaning never required tell-tale cheek bumps?

Or maybe somewhere in his unconscious my student was remembering that someone who “kept a straight face” while telling a joke might be considered “wooden-faced”?

Or maybe if I told a good joke, my student would come up and give me a nice sloppy kiss, or a lick, on the cheek?

Well, let’s just enjoy the confusion rather than getting too graphic about the possibilities!

And please, let’s also raise a toast to all those who understand that satire is one noble way of telling the truth. Je suis Charley.

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

11 responses to ““It is tongue and cheek humor.”

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