Cheeky. It’s a word in British English that utterly charms those who speak other Englishes, especially the American version. But it also charmed me, in my younger years, when I was at university: I used the term constantly, as all young people did back in the heady Noughties. Everything was cheeky back then: essays, all-nighters, two-for-one bottles of wine, hangovers, job interviews, rent, going on a date, meeting friends for a quick drink mid-week.
Only one of these things really is cheeky, though: the last one. Think about the cheeky Nandos thing, which everyone has heard of by now: it’s the cheeky that transforms “Shall we go for some slightly-overpriced relatively-spicy chicken?” to “LOL we’re getting away with it!” But a cheeky Nandos only makes sense for lunch during a workday, the only time it’s a treat (who eats anywhere but their desks between Monday and Friday?). Clawing back the lunch hour is cheeky, as is gossiping with work friends while dunking chargrilled chicken into various chilli-based sauces, and the joy of spending it somewhere other than in front of your screen(s). Cheeky takes a small, indulgent infraction and makes it even more delightful.
Cheeky. Why did we use the word so much? It’s an excuse for bad behaviour, but lack of control doesn’t matter so much when you’re twenty, when the crash of 2008 is still a couple of years away and when you’re still sure you’ll definitely get a job after graduating. Today, cheeky sounds different. Life in the early 21st century turned out to be much scarier than we had imagined, and the word has lost some of its innocence.
The roots of the noun cheek can be traced back to Old English, which was in use in the British Isles between the years 450 and 1150 AD. “Ceace” meant “jaw or jawbone,” originating from the same root as “ceowan,” which meant “chew.” So cheeky starts with the inside action of the mouth upon food, but has come to mean the outward appearance of that action, the cheeks on show to the world. And the world has always read into the appearance of the cheeks: blushing can be the result of passion or humiliation, and to make someone blush–to get a strong response–is to win.
You may look at a cheek–even make it redden–but to touch that cheek? There’s intimacy involved in caressing a cheek. It’s what the leading man longs for as he gazes upon his love (“the brightness of her cheek would shame those stars”) in Romeo and Juliet: “See how she leans her cheek upon her hand. / O, that I were a glove upon that hand / That I might touch that cheek!” But men’s cheeks don’t get as much mention as women’s. Female cheeks warranted description, an indicator of age, attractiveness, and response to advances. “There’s language in her eye, her cheek, her lip,” says Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida, but “no such roses see I in her cheeks,” says the writer of his mistress in Sonnet 130. He’s all about her inner beauty.
Somewhere along the way, cheek took on the adjectival form. According to Oxford Dictionaries, cheeky first appeared between its covers in 1859 as “insolent or audacious in address; coolly impudent or presuming.” That’s a leap from the cheeks of the face, or indeed the buttocks (used in this way from c.1600 onwards). The noun had grown to include a body part that was a bit rude to talk about.
Cheeky has gone on to cover so much ground that it’s split into two different meanings: on the one hand, “showing a lack of respect or politeness in a way that is amusing or appealing,” and on the other, “(of something pleasurable) consumed or done in an unplanned, rather self-indulgent way.” If the original meaning was transgressive disrespect, the modern cheeky seems to be fun that you shouldn’t be having.
This cheeky is the swirling-round-your-mouth anticipation after saying a “yes” to cream on your coffee–it’s usually a word we speak out loud–especially around work, food, and boozing. There’s affection in the term and in the idea that the person is getting away with something. That’s why we can have a cheeky drink (or five, on a work night), which can lead to a cheeky fag (when we don’t normally smoke sober), which will then demand a cheeky cuppa (or three) the next day, an excuse for a break from work, gossip, and to nurse a hangover.
(A cheeky glass of water or a cheeky salad doesn’t work; those things are too boringly good for us.)
The second dictionary definition, “showing a lack of respect or politeness in a way that is amusing or appealing,” sticks up two fingers at the Establishment (nice one!), or at us (oi no!). But it’s mainly the meaning the word takes on when it’s written down: out there in the endless Benny Hill loop of British headlines, on any given day there are cheeky naked calendars; a cheeky cheesemaker; and of course, cheeky comments by the Prince of Cheek, Prince Harry. There’s a tabloid feel to cheeky, perfect for headlines, the original constrained-character-count format. But cheeky can mislead us, promising more we hope for and delivering so much less. In those links, cheeky teases a secret celebrity relationship (story doesn’t live up to it); a glimpse at a naughty calendar (nope, not even a cheek); a cheesemaker who shouldn’t have been trying to copyright the taste of his own creation (thank the EU’s highest court for stopping that one guys); and with Prince Harry’s cheeky comment about a footballer’s partner, well that joke’s really on the footballer, Peter Crouch.
Cheeky is relatable, like when the rich and famous are cheeky, just like us. The entire England football team is wall-to-wall cheeky lads and banter as memes from this summer’s World Cup demonstrate. Jesse Lingard is the Prince Harry of football cheekiness, elevating cheeky to an art form with cheeky digs, cheeky nutmegs and by throwing down a cheeky Instagram challenge to even more famous football player, Cristiano Ronaldo. It sounds exhausting and adorable, like your favourite toddler nephew. But Lingard is not that at all: he’s a 25-year-old who reportedly earns £100,000 a week.
(When female celebrities are cheeky, on the other hand, it’s about sex, hovering on the edge of saucy. For modern-day cheekiness, see The Sun’s late, unlamented Page 3, which featured topless women in a national daily newspaper; or this round-up of all the times the posterior of cheeky TV presenter Amanda Holden has been visible in photos online; or singer-turned-TV presenter Rochelle Humes with a cheeky confession about wearing SOCKS during sex; or one more TV presenter, Holly Willoughby, making a cheeky sausage jibe, which is quickly upgraded in the lead text to “filthy sausage blunder.”)
Sometimes a note of anger can creep in, as when Oasis frontman Liam Gallagher threw hosting this year’s Brit Awards back in the organisers’ faces with “the cheeky cunts,” because he wanted to play live at the event; “are they having a laugh” he asks, making this the most passive-aggressively British tweet of all time. Cheeky makes the anger more palatable, but it doesn’t hide the emotion: despite all the wealth and fame and best-selling songs, Liam Gallagher is just like us, sticking two fingers up at the people in charge (even though he’s definitely more powerful than the organisers of some music awards).
Even Brexit, yes, is a bit cheeky. The word brings the larger-than-life back down to our plebeian level, as when politicians are trying to act like normal people, that someone the electorate “would go for a beer with,” in America (it would be a cheeky drink in Britain). When you put cheeky and politician together, who comes to mind? Absolutely no women MPs, of course; no, they’re not meant to be cheeky. Maybe… Boris Johnson? He “plays a cheeky rhetorical game” with questions on Brexit but it sounds more calculating, really (though he’s more usually characterised as a buffoon).
But there’s another Brexit-supporting (ex?) politician whose cheeky-chappy persona has really worked out for him: Nigel Farage. He’s a two-time leader of leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), known for its right-wing populism and English nationalist sentiment. UKIP is not cheeky at all. And yet Farage the character looms larger than his party, the cheeky and charming schoolboy so often photographed with a cheeky pint in hand that it’s become his thing. (He managed six pints, a bottle of wine and two glasses of port over lunch with the Financial Times. Lunch!) Farage was even the first choice of drinking partner out of all the then-party leaders for Guardian columnist Marina Hyde. Even if she opens the piece with “Obviously gunpoint would be involved…” she’s still there in the picture, sitting next to him with their drinks.
This is the problem with cheeky, where you can’t see it as innocent: it’s so cheeky you don’t take it seriously. After all, Farage was always painted as harmless. Just a bit cheeky, just a bit extremely right-wing and against multiculturalism, but look, he’ll never get any power, he’s always getting a cheeky round in down the pub, just don’t worry, have a laugh while watching him be cheeky to the President of the EU, or to his old party rival, or to members of his own party.
Behind the cheeky man-of-the-people, pint-in-hand facade, Farage earned a six-figure salary from the European Parliament, where he was an MEP. Ridiculously, for the leader of a party who pinned most of the UK’s problems on the EU, Farage bemoaned the loss of his European salary when 52% of the UK supported his cause, and voted to Leave… something… in the EU Membership Referendum of June 2016. He hung onto his £73,000-a-year pension, when the average weekly pay in the UK is around £25,000 a year. Once you’ve seen the truth hidden just beyond Farage’s cheeky outer layer, it’s like peeling an onion. (You might cry, and there’s nothing at the core, except possibly a “Brexit fanatic, right-wing failed politician and all-round inside-out frog man.”)
Cheeky. The two diverging meanings that it’s picked up over the years, indulgence and lack of respect, have come back together, now, at a strange, febrile moment in Britain, as we work out if we’re Brexiting or not, and how, and what the 2016 vote actually meant. There’s so much more onion to peel. The Leave campaign ‘probably won thanks to illegal overspending’; the government tried to keep the Attorney General’s legal advice on Brexit hidden because it’s all worst-case scenarios; and in an historic first, the government has been found in contempt of Parliament.
Cheeky. The referendum on the the UK’s membership of the EU was an indulgence. The public hadn’t been crying out for it: then-Prime Minister David Cameron called the vote to appease the Eurosceptics within his right-wing party, the Conservatives. A cheeky move, to gamble on the country’s future to try and solve squabbles within your own party. To the voting public, it felt cheeky, this funny little referendum on a matter that so many of us took for granted was already settled. Of course we’d stay in the EU. Of course it was the best thing to do. Of course we’re all clear that we all agree what on this vote means. Yeah, let’s take our dogs with us.
Cheeky. Even as Cameron, a Remainer, publicly resigned upon the announcement of the Brexit result, he hummed himself a cheeky little ditty as he entered 10 Downing Street for the last time, still mic’ed up. Sounding like a sitcom sting, he was washing his hands of it all (though he’s regretting it now). This referendum has always felt like a joke, and it took a long time for the public to understand that it that might actually change the lives of all UK citizens, and any non-citizens living here. A vote held to heal a political rift has, instead, focussed a very unflattering spotlight on Britain’s delusions of grandeur.
Cheeky. It’s a charmingly British excuse for bad behaviour. It helps the bitter pill go down. It’s sticking two fingers up at the Establishment. Now we’re only just beginning to find out what the Establishment has in store for us.