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The New Meaning of 'Cheeky' That's Confusing Americans

getty images (nandos) / istock (monkey)
getty images (nandos) / istock (monkey)

How is language evolving on the internet? In this series on internet linguistics, Gretchen McCulloch breaks down the latest innovations in online communication.

A few weeks ago, certain corners of the internet went abuzz about "having a cheeky Nando's." It started in England—Nando's is a British fast-food chicken restaurant—but quickly spread elsewhere as baffled Americans wondered "what on earth do they mean by cheeky?"

One popular explanation, from Tumblr user chavvesty, was:

mate it's hard to explain mate it's just like one day you'll just be wif your mates having a look in jd and you might fancy curry club at the 'Spoons but your lad Calum who's an absolute ledge and the archbishop of banterbury will be like 'brevs lets have a cheeky nandos instead." and you'll think "Top. Let's smash it."

Which ... doesn't actually help. The problem was, while the Brits knew how to use it, they were having a hard time figuring out how to describe what it meant. (OK, some of them were probably being deliberately obscure.) Cheeky's just a cheeky little word to define.

So UK linguists Dr. Laura Bailey and Dr. Mercedes Durham decided to help the world answer this very cheeky—er, important—question. They ran a survey of 150 people, which they grouped into UK, U.S. and "other" (including non-English-speaking countries), and asked them to rate four different kinds of cheeky sentences for whether they sounded natural or awkward:

Original meaning of cheeky - such as cheeky monkey, he’s a cheeky git, that’s cheeky

Newer meaning of cheeky - such as cheeky pint, cheeky nap, cheeky Nando’s

Newer meaning but in less "naughty" contexts - such as cheeky spin, cheeky walk, cheeky healthy meal, cheeky nice dinner

Sentences with cheeky that are weird in some way (just to check that people were paying attention) - such as he’s cheeky a boy, I love to cheeky run

In a blog post, Bailey and Durham describe a few of their results:

Our gut feeling was that the meaning of cheeky has expanded and this was happening more in the UK than in the U.S. In terms of definitions of cheeky, there’s the older meaning, which you find in the OED and other dictionaries, where it’s used for a child or possibly to mean they’re a little bit naughty or rude.

Then there’s the cheeky Nando’s version, as exemplified in the following tweet: ‘One of life's pleasures is a cheeky nap in the afternoon.’ A nap cannot be rude or naughty, but you can be a little bit naughty for having a nap, so the cheekiness is not a quality of the thing itself, but of the speaker.

In many ways, they found that all the respondents agreed: everyone understood that a misbehaving child can be a cheeky monkey (type 1), and no one loved to cheeky run (type 4) or would take their significant other out for a cheeky Valentine's Day dinner at a nice Italian restaurant (type 3). They propose this ranking of "things that can be described as cheeky":

Boys and monkeys > Students, animals, naughty foods and drinks > Healthy foods and drinks, exercise, responsible people

But what about that second type of sentence, as in cheeky Nando's or going out for a cheeky beer/cheeky pint after work? Sure enough, Bailey and Durham found that the British respondents rated these sentences better than the Americans or the group of other countries.

I talked with Bailey and Durham about some of their initial results on Twitter, and at a certain point I had a revelation:

This got us wondering: If :P is the emoticon counterpart to "cheeky," is there also an emoji version? The tongue stuck out emoji is an obvious contender, but another emoji that has a hard-to-define, sometimes saucy meaning is the smiling pile of poo emoji.

So what do you think? How would you use cheeky? Does it have the same meaning as :P for you? Bailey and Durham have added a few new questions, so you can take their cheeky survey here.

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