What does ‘tongue in cheek’ mean?

Most English-speaking countries have a culture of teasing for humour’s sake. The closer the friend, the more you try to embarrass them, but as you can imagine, sometimes it goes too far. If you find yourself offending someone with something you say, how can you calm the situation?

The simplest way is to say, “It was just a joke,” but another phrase English speakers commonly use is, “It was tongue in cheek.” A tongue-in-cheek comment is one that was not intended to be taken seriously. So, if you make a joke about your friend and he or she looks angry, tell them it was tongue in cheek. It’s similar to saying, “I didn’t really mean it.”

On the subject of humour, the word tease is rarely used by young people. It sounds more like something my grandmother would have said. If you want to sound more natural, instead of saying, “I teased my friend,” you should say, “I made fun of my friend.” To make fun of (someone/something) is a phrase that can be used in polite company. Another common (but rude) phrase is to take the piss out of (someone/something). Just make sure you don’t say this phrase the first time you meet your boyfriend/girlfriend’s parents!

Examples:

  • “He’s always teasing me because of my accent.” (Grandma English)
  • “I made fun of his team after they lost.” (Polite and natural-sounding)
  • “We’re great friends. We always take the piss out of each other.” (Natural-sounding, but rude)

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