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

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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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Noriyuki Saitoh
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Art
Japanese Artist Crafts Intricate Insects Using Bamboo
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Noriyuki Saitoh

Not everyone finds insects beautiful. Some people think of them as scary, disturbing, or downright disgusting. But when Japanese artist Noriyuki Saitoh looks at a discarded cicada shell or a feeding praying mantis, he sees inspiration for his next creation.

Saitoh’s sculptures, spotted over at Colossal, are crafted by hand from bamboo. He uses the natural material to make some incredibly lifelike pieces. In one example, three wasps perch on a piece of honeycomb. In another, two mating dragonflies create a heart shape with their abdomens.

The figures he creates aren’t meant to be exact replicas of real insects. Rather, Saitoh starts his process with a list of dimensions and allows room for creativity when fine-tuning the appearances. The sense of movement and level of detail he puts into each sculpture is what makes them look so convincing.

You can browse the artist’s work on his website or follow him on social media for more stunning samples from his portfolio.

Bamboo insect.

Bamboo insect.

Bamboo insect.

Bamboo insect.

Bamboo insect.

Bamboo insect.

[h/t Colossal]

All images courtesy of Noriyuki Saitoh.

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History
P.G. Wodehouse's Exile from England
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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

You don’t get more British than Jeeves and Wooster. The P.G. Wodehouse characters are practically synonymous with elevenses and Pimm’s. But in 1947, their creator left England for the U.S. and never looked back.

Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, better known as P.G., was living in northern France and working on his latest Jeeves and Wooster novel, Joy in the Morning, when the Nazis came knocking. They occupied his estate for a period of time before shipping him off to an internment camp in Germany, which he later said he found pretty pleasant:

“Everybody seems to think a German internment camp must be a sort of torture chamber. It was really perfectly normal and ordinary. The camp had an extraordinarily nice commander, and we did all sorts of things, you know. We played cricket, that sort of thing. Of course, I was writing all the time.”

Wodehouse was there for 11 months before being suddenly released to a hotel in Berlin where a man from the German foreign office named Werner Plack was waiting to meet him. Wodehouse was somewhat acquainted with Plack from a stint in Hollywood, so finding him waiting didn't seem out of the ordinary. Plack advised Wodehouse to use his time in the internment camp to his advantage, and suggested writing a radio series about his experiences to be broadcast in America.

As Plack probably suspected, Wodehouse’s natural writing style meant that his broadcasts were light-hearted affairs about playing cricket and writing novels, This didn’t sit too well with the British, who believed Wodehouse was trying to downplay the horrors of the war. The writer was shocked when MI5 subjected him to questioning about the “propaganda” he wrote for the Germans. "I thought that people, hearing the talks, would admire me for having kept cheerful under difficult conditions," he told them in 1944. "I would like to conclude by saying that I never had any intention of assisting the enemy and that I have suffered a great deal of mental pain as the result of my action."

Wodehouse's contemporary George Orwell came to his aid, penning a 1945 an essay called “In Defense of P.G. Wodehouse." Sadly, it didn’t do much to sway public opinion. Though MI5 ultimately decided not to prosecute, it seemed that British citizens had already made up their minds, with some bookstores and libraries even removing all Wodehouse material from their shelves. Seeing the writing on the wall, the author and his wife packed up all of their belongings and moved to New York in 1947. They never went back to England.

But that’s not to say Wodehouse didn’t want to. In 1973, at the age of 91, he expressed interest in returning. “I’d certainly like to, but at my age it’s awfully difficult to get a move on. But I’d like to go back for a visit in the spring. They all seem to want me to go back. The trouble is that I’ve never flown. I suppose that would solve everything."

Unfortunately, he died of a heart attack before he could make the trip. But the author bore no ill will toward his native country. When The Paris Review interviewed Wodehouse in 1973, they asked if he resented the way he was treated by the English. “Oh, no, no, no. Nothing of that sort. The whole thing seems to have blown over now,” he said.  He was right—the Queen bestowed Wodehouse with a knighthood two months before his death, showing that all was forgiven.

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