Don’t laugh. There is such a thing as “tongue in cheek.” It’s so real, they gave it a Wikipedia Page.[1]

“Tongue in cheek” is an idiom. It refers to a humorous or sarcastic statement expressed in a mock serious manner. According to Madame Wiki Pedia, “The phrase originally expressed contempt, but by 1842 had acquired its modern meaning. Early users of the phrase include Sir Walter Scott[2] in his 1828 The Fair Maid of Perth. The physical act of putting one’s tongue into one’s cheek once signified contempt. For example, in Tobias Smollett’s The Adventures of Roderick Random, which was published in 1748, the eponymous hero takes a coach to Bath, and on the way, apprehends a highwayman. This provokes an altercation with a less brave passenger: He looked back and pronounced with a faltering voice, ‘O! ’tis very well—damn my blood! I shall find a time.’ I signified my contempt of him by thrusting my tongue in my cheek, which humbled him so much, that he scarce swore another oath aloud during the whole journey.”

Fast forward to the Twenty-First Century, especially after January 2017, and you will find much tongue-in-cheek writing by and about the Tongue-in-Chief himself. President Trump’s tweets are a rebirth of many idioms not uttered in modern times. For example, he allegedly said, “The US will protect Japan if it is attacked, but in reverse scenario, Japan can watch it on Sony TV . . . In his Independence Day speech, he allegedly claimed the US army operated air ports in 1775.”[3]

But satire is not true, any more than marble mouthing is talking. Satire is a genre of literature, in which vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, corporations, government, or society itself into improvement.[4] The ethical challenge for those who frequently talk with marbles in their mouths is failing to distinguish truth from fancy. The ethical challenge for those writing satire about those vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings is clarity.

So history has given us a basis for assessing what might be tongue-in-cheek writing (satire) in ethical terms. Did marble-mouth intend to say what he said, or was he just poking his tongue into his cheek while talking? The former is unforgivable; the latter is unintentional satire.


Gary L StuartI am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.

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[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tongue-in-cheek

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walter_Scott

[3] https://www.indiatoday.in/news-analysis/story/kashmir-gaffe-donald-trump-s-many-faux-pas-1572522-2019-07-23

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satire