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Whenever anyone from US hears me say "cheeky" to (or about) my kids, they always ask what it means. When I try to explain, they suggest "mischievous", but apparently it has more negative connotation than the "cheeky" I mean (the best I can explain it is mischievous, but cute about it). When I mean it negatively I use "naughty", not "cheeky". So, is there a better definition, or am I using it wrong?

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peppa pig, a nick jr tv show say cheeky like all the time –  user38338 Feb 27 '13 at 0:09

4 Answers 4

Perhaps impish might work?

Defined as "showing a lack of respect for somebody/something in a way that is amusing rather than serious" in the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary or...

"having or showing a playful desire to cause trouble : playful and mischievous" in Meriam-Webster.

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We use the term cheeky here in Southeastern North Carolina to mean mischievous in a cute way. To give too much lip is to be cheeky.

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There are no full stops, spaces, Right Capitalization, or correct grammar used in North Carolina? –  Mohit Aug 3 '13 at 4:21

Another Aussie here — I use cheeky quite a lot in the following example situations.

  • I walk into the bathroom when my girlfriend is having a shower and she flicks water over me. I respond "oh you cheeky brat".
  • A friend pinches my seat at the pub and I respond "you cheeky bugger".

In both those the cheeky has an upward tone and the word following is fairly flat.

Obviously in both situations the person is doing something only slightly naughty or mischevious.

I also think it could be used the same as "are you giving me lip?" in other situations where back chatting is what's occurring. I introduced the word to a friend in France who now delights in calling his 10-year old daughter a cheeky monkey, and she is the definition of it!

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Your usage of cheeky is perfectly correct. The NOAD definition aptly captures your intended meaning:

cheeky
impudent or irreverent, typically in an endearing or amusing way

Unfortunately, this word is not too common among American speakers. It may be that a cultural difference accounts for the fact (my conjecture) that American speakers are more likely to use adjectives (or adjectival phrases) that are more specific than cheeky to describe their children's behavior. For instance, you might hear:

  • Little Johnny's such a piece of work.
  • Amy's quite a character.
  • Our five-year-old's got some real spunk.
  • What a zesty little chipmunk!
  • Jimmy always seems to have a will of his own.

As for a better alternative to cheeky, I do not think there is one, except you want to go for either of the following:

  • Impudent — a more formal synonym that would rarely be used in casual conversation.

  • Sassy — a more informal synonym, but I doubt that parents would use this to describe their kids; it is more common among friends, and for some reasons, more feminine than masculine.

Finally, I would say that mischievous does not always have a negative connotation. It has two degrees of meaning, one which is much more negative than the other. I quote the relevant NOAD definition:

mischievous
(of a person, animal, or their behavior) causing or showing a fondness for causing trouble in a playful way

It clearly isn't a direct synonym of cheeky, but it could work very well for related behavioral descriptions. And I daresay mischievous is way more popular than cheeky in conversations among American parents.

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@Jimi Oke I don't agree with you that cheeky bastard has a uniformly positive connotation, even amongst Brits who are familiar with it. For example, check out this scene from the movie Snatch, where Gorgeous George, a boxer, decks out Mikey the piker for calling him "a fat fuck", while replying "cheeky bastard!": Mikey vs. Gorgeous George (Youtube link, starts immediately) I have definitely heard the phrase used in other situations where the speaker felt that his antagonist was giving him too much "lip." –  Uticensis Apr 23 '11 at 16:09
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@Billare: I never said anything about cheeky bastard being a positive description. Heck, the word bastard is not even in my dictionary! Fat fuck and cheeky bastard could be considered obscene, derogatory or loaded insults by some. However, those may be phrases that tough friends may throw at each other without batting eyelids. My answer here was strictly given in the context of parents' description of their children's behaviors. Some parents may be comfortable describing their child as a mischievous little punk or cheeky brat; but some may not. I think the tone says a lot, too. –  Jimi Oke Apr 23 '11 at 16:14
    
@Jimi Oke D'oh! I don't know why I put the bastard in italics; sometimes (oftentimes, really) I write faster than I think. But I think the fact that George put the appellation on an epithet shows that cheeky's use isn't uniformly positive; he was responding to what he thought was Mikey's audacious responses in what seemed to be a clearly inferior position. If I've veered too oblique in comment, apologies, so let me be clearer: Cheeky has clear usage amongst Brits when they feel their interlocutor is giving them too much sass. I would be pretty circumspect in using it. –  Uticensis Apr 23 '11 at 16:21
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@Jimi Oke I feel like cheeky is one of those words perfect for someone to deliver backhanded insults with, to say something like, "Your kid's a little a devil, isn't it he?" or "He's a bit of imp, that one." –  Uticensis Apr 23 '11 at 16:31
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As an Australian English speaker, and a parent of a child who I regularly refer to as cheeky, I absolutely agree with your answer, Jimi. I think it's important to note the difference between cheeky and cheek though. Giving cheek is definitely negative, where being cheeky (especially in relation to children) is not. –  Loquacity Apr 24 '11 at 0:19

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