What Does Cheek by Jowl Mean?

Cheek by Jowl Meaning

Definition: Side by side; in close proximity to something.

The idiom cheek by jowl is used to express when two things are close to each other. This idiom is a reference to the cheek and jowl of a person’s face, which are very close to one another.

Origin of Cheek by Jowl

Unlike many idioms used in English today, cheek by jowl can be traced back as far as 600 AD. It first appeared in The Auncient Ecclesiasticall Histories of the First Six Hundred Yeares After Christ:

  • Cheeke by iole with the Emperour.

The idiom also appeared in Shakespeare’s play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

  • Follow? Nay, I’ll go with thee, cheek by jowl.

Shakespeare’s use of the phrase may be the reason it is still used as an idiom today. Also, this idiom replaced a similar idiom cheek by cheek.

Ways to Use Cheek by Jowl

Cheek by jowl originCheek by jowl may or may not have a negative connotation.

It commonly describes cramped conditions, particularly living conditions. In this sense, it would have a negative context.

However, when it is used as side-by-side as friends, it wouldn’t carry the same negative connotation.

For example,

  • There we were, cheek by jowl, wandering through the woods.

Despite whether or not the phrase is used in a positive or negative context, its meaning remains the same.

Examples of Cheek by Jowl

Meaning of cheek by jowlThere is only one main way in which cheek by jowl can be used, and that is to express that two things are in very close proximity to one another. Most often, cheek by jowl is used to describe when items or people exist in cramped conditions. For example, Barry might say he and his wife live cheek by jowl in their studio apartment in New York City. This suggests that the apartment is very small.

More Examples

  • Now Sonoma State Historic Park’s re-created buildings stand cheek by jowl with the prosperous shops and restaurants of downtown Sonoma. – LA Times
  • But within its walls, crated or sealed cheek by jowl in cramped storage vaults, are more than a million of some of the most exquisite artworks ever made. – NY Times

Summary

The English idiom cheek by jowl is used to refer to two things that are in very close proximity to each other. Sometimes, the phrase is hyphenated.

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