How a #CheekyNandos became more acceptable

By Laura R. Bailey (University of Kent) and Mercedes Durham (Cardiff University)

Our recent article, A cheeky investigation: Tracking the semantic change of cheeky from monkeys to wines describes the behaviour of cheeky in British and American English.

For Mercedes, growing up in French-speaking Switzerland but speaking American English at home meant having to ‘relearn’ English at school with her classmates. They were learning British English, which, for Mercedes, often led to confusion. Confusion sometimes turned into hilarity, particularly the time she was confronted with a picture of a dog stealing sausages and the exclamation ‘What a cheeky dog!’. Cheeky, for people or dogs, just wasn’t in her vocabulary. Fast forward a couple decades when she moved to the UK, and found that not only was cheeky all over the place but it was used for drinks and food too. #CheekyNandos, so baffling to Mercedes and other American-English-speaking internet users, was commonplace and unremarkable for Laura and other British-English-speakers. Being good linguists, we set up a study.

We knew that cheeky applied to food and drink was newer than cheeky for sausage-stealing dogs, so we wanted to know whether this newer form of cheeky had spread to North America, despite the fact that the older form was known to be used less there. It gave us the opportunity to examine how language changes and how the internet might in some cases spur this on.

It’s no surprise to sociolinguists to find differences when the same language is spoken in different regions, and we know that changes can happen at different times in different places, or simply only happen in one place. But in our highly connected world there are cases where the internet can help spread language, particularly in the case of specific words or phrases spreading via memes.

What’s in a meme?
While our article focuses on existing differences between linguistic varieties that memes and language play can bring to light, memes themselves are language change in action.

Memes are cultural shortcuts: often jokes or satirical social comment, they provide the setup so the memer just needs to find a funny punchline. Part of the joke then consists of the template itself, such as the ‘distracted boyfriend’ meme:

the ‘distracted boyfriend’ meme, consisting of a woman looking at her boyfriend angrily as he turns to leer at a passing woman. The distracted boyfriend is labelled ‘me’, the passing woman ‘a nap’, and the girlfriend ‘multiple pressing matters and responsibilities’.

As memes become popular and enter the general consciousness of a group of users, they can be modified, illustrating language change processes familiar from the ‘real world’. Soundcloud, for instance, is a site for musicians to host their music. It became popular for a Twitter user to follow up a viral tweet with a reply saying something like ‘Oh wow, this blew up, here’s a link to my Soundcloud if you want to check my music out!’. So many people did this that the text became pretty formulaic and began to be mocked. Now, ‘Soundcloud’ has travelled through a process of trademark genericisation (where the brand name became used as a generic term for any music site), abstraction (where the generic term became a metaphorical term for something to promote, such as a charity) and verbification (it has become used as a verb meaning ‘to promote something under a viral tweet’).

Memes that rely only on a specific sentence construction or phrase, and don’t need the scaffolding of an image or social media platform can break out into the ‘real world’. This has happened in recent months with shortcuts for generational or socioeconomic groups such as ‘snowflake’ and ‘boomer’. While these terms have been around for some time (‘boomer’ has been used to describe the generation born between the World War II and the early 60s since at least its first attestation in the OED in 1976), within the last year the use of the phrase ‘OK boomer’ has, well, boomed. With the help of TikTok it became a meme, and now an utterance of ‘OK boomer’ condenses reams of intergenerational discord into a convenient verbal eyeroll.

The cheeky nandos meme did two things: it highlighted the regional difference that we already suspected was there, given Mercedes’ own experience, and it revealed a linguistic change in progress that is spreading from the UK to the US, at least in part via this meme.

We asked 372 people to rate sentences using the word cheeky. We were especially interested in their answers to the sentences that included ‘old-fashioned’ cheeky, such as He’s a cheeky boy, and the newer use, as in Let’s go for a cheeky nandos after work. We call these Type 1 and Type 2 respectively. Type 1 are the blue squares in this graph, and Type 2 are the orange dots:

Graph illustrating the mean rating (1-6) of sentences containing two types of cheeky. Type 1 are rated between 4 and 5.5 out of 6, and Type 2 are rated at around 4.

You can see that Type 1 and Type 2 (old and new cheeky) are pretty distinct, especially if you only consider the Type 1s that refer to humans and not animals (it turns out Americans think you have to be human to be cheeky, while Brits are familiar with cheeky dogs).

The biggest difference between the UK and North America is revealed if we look at Type 2, the #CheekyNandos type. Cheeky to refer to food, drinks and illicit activities is very much a UK thing, it turns out:

Graph showing that while Type 1 is rated at around 4.5 by both regions, Type 2 is rated at 4.6 by British respondents and 2.8 by North Americans.

We also suspected that the new use of cheeky would be more acceptable among younger people. If it is, this indicates it’s a change in progress (so-called ‘apparent time’). And it is, in both regions: the orange line in both graphs below dips as the age of the respondents goes up. In the UK but not North America, new cheeky is at least as acceptable as the original one, if not more so, for younger speakers. Many respondents said the original meaning seemed old-fashioned, and like something their grandma might say.

Two graphs, showing the relative rating of the two types of cheeky by age group in Britain and Ireland and in North America.

We also looked at whether cheeky was expanding further into contexts such as ‘Let’s go for a cheeky ride’ (we called this type 3). You can see what we found about them, and more about what we’ve talked about here in the full article describing the study in more detail, published in English Today.

Laura R. Bailey (@linguistlaura) and Mercedes Durham (@drswissmiss)

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