14 February 2013

A certain cheeky little word

What do I have to do to get 18 year olds to enjoy English?! I've just done 2 hours of teaching for which I chose a theme that I thought would be of interest to them, hoping they would therefore be more enthusiastic than when I try to make them debate the pros and cons of bearing arms. The topic I decided on was British slang - showing them a video which explains different slang words, getting them to do a worksheet on the meanings of the words, and finally role playing a conversation amongst British teenagers, including these newly learnt terms. More blank faces. I even came to the conclusion that one of my pupils is perhaps deaf and mute, due to the lack of response I got from him, even when standing 5 inches away from him (seeing him out the window 30 seconds ago conversing normally with friends as he left the cantine has since disproved my suspicions). Surely a direct translation of 'the dog's bollocks' into French warrants a little smirk, no?

Anyway, I didn't come here to rant, I know it could be 20 times worse. The reason for today's spontaneous blog post was to try and figure out what exactly the word 'cheeky' means. I don't mean when it's used by adults reprimanding their insolent child by telling him 'Don't be cheeky'. I mean when youths of today put it in front of a noun to make it sound somewhat light-hearted and perhaps slightly rebellious. This was one of the words on my list of British slang for today's classes, and I literally couldn't explain it to my pupils, in English or in French.

I've since looked on Urban Dictionary (the best invention in the world, ever, even more so than sliced bread) but all the entries there haven't quite hit the nail on the head in capturing its meaning and usage.

Off the top of my head, here are some cheeky sentences to demonstrate what usage I am referring to:

"I'm just popping to the pub for a cheeky pint"
"Couldn't resist another cheeky photo of the cathedral"
"I live in a cheeky little town called Melle"
"Fancy hitting Oxford Street for a cheeky bit of retail therapy?"

I suppose, in reflection, 'cheeky' is mostly used when you're doing something a teeny weeny bit rebellious, or used when in fact you should be doing something else. But as my third example demonstrates, the word really can be used anywhere - there simply is nothing naughty about an innocent little historic town in the French countryside.

I guess it's just one of those words in the English language that has become totally overused and has therefore lost its meaning. I'm not having a go at its overuse, I quite like the word, and would even go so far as to say I use it myself from time to time, but it just caught my attention when I was teaching today, and had to admit to the class 'In fact, I'm unable to explain what it means'.

Right, I'm off to have a cheeky French yoghurt now. Bye! :P


  1. I'm writing this comment whilst eating a cheeky bit of cake!

    This word has fallen victim to one of the processes in language evolution. It starts as people try to make their language more interesting, particularly when they want to emphasise something. People find certain words sound particularly impressive, so they use them more and more, even if they are not necessarily apt. For example, "it's utter chaos out there", well it's not, but it sounds a lot better than just saying there's a "considerable amount of disorder out there". Eventually the word is used so much it loses its shock factor and its original meaning, so it becomes just an ordinary word. This is happening with the word "literally", which sounds impressive when you use it because it suggests what you're saying is true and so, naturally, is being used for things that aren't true at all. But it's being used so much it's become a sort of variant of "really" or "very". But then, if you look at the word "really", you can see how this was once in the same situation – "really" as in "real".

    All of this and much more about how language evolves is explained in Guy Deutscher's book, ‘The Unfolding of Language’. He uses the example of "at all" stuck on the end of questions. "I'm I bothering you at all"; "Can I help at all?"; "Would you like a bag at all?" He suggests that this little tag is being used so much, it could even become a part of English grammar to denote a polite question. And a similar thing is happening with "cheeky". It doesn't mean anything, but it's just a way of making a sentence sound more interesting, kinda cute, kinda funny, kinda... well... cheeky.

    There's a few great examples in French too. "Quoi" can just be stuck onto the end of a sentence without really meaning anything. Or, for another example from Deutscher's book, the way of making sentences negative in French once meant something slightly different. "ne... pas" used to mean "not a step" as in "not even a little bit" and was used just for emphasis (along with other expression such as "ne... point"). But it was used so much that it become a regular part of French grammar. Bizarrely, "pas" now carries more negative meaning than the "ne", which can be dropped in spoken French.

    Btw, I really love language evolution.

  2. Also, students who don't talk... This really annoys me. Especially when you've gone to the trouble to sort out a lesson they ought to find interesting.

    What annoys me the most is when students who are perfectly good at English (and *know* that they are) decide they're not going to take part in the lesson. Like it's beneath them or something.

    1. Ooo, interesting comment! I'd never thought about the actual meaning of 'really', that's so true! I guess you could also say the same for 'very', since it's a derivative of 'veritas' meaning truth...

      Might have to give that book a read, it sounds really interesting. I'd never associated the 'pas' in negation with 'un pas'. I guess most words in any language you take for granted, and it's not until you break them down or properly look at them that you realise how they've evolved over time.

      On the students, I can sympathise with their lack of enthusiasm when I realise how boring the lesson is, but yeah as you said, when it's something that should be pertinent and interesting to them, you just think to yourself 'will ANYTHING make these kids pipe up!' However, I know I am hypocritical, since at uni I am pretty reticent in language classes myself! That's going to have to be something I change in 4th year I reckon...