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My daughter comes back from kindergarten and says one of her friend is funny and her class teacher is cheeky.

The dictionary assigns both positive and negative meaning to those words,

  • Funny can be humorous, but also silly, dishonest, or unfriendly
  • Cheeky means slightly rude or showing no respect, but often in a funny way

As a foreigner I can't grasp the subtleties of the words, so I'd like to check if these words are generally interpreted as positive under kindergarten context? Would I offend others if I use them?

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It is very common to refer to a friend as “funny”. Native English speakers would always understand it as meaning “witty or humorous” in this context.

The other, more negative, meanings for “funny” are more rarely used and would be made very clear by a different context. For example: “funny money” is fake (dishonest) money, and “he’s gone a bit funny” can mean someone is mixed up, confused or a bit crazy.

If your child used the word “cheeky” I’d take it as having a positive meaning initially. But I would not really expect any child to refer to their teacher as “cheeky” as it doesn’t seem to be the sort of behaviour expected of a responsible teacher in a classroom setting. “Cheeky” is most often used when a lower status individual gently taunts, mocks or disrespects a higher status individual. So, a student might be cheeky to a teacher, but rarely the other way around.

I’d also be mildly surprised if a kindergarten-aged child reached the fairly sophisticated judgement that anyone was “cheeky”. If a child did use that word I’d be inclined to quiz them regarding exactly what they meant by it (exactly what behavior of the teacher did they think was “cheeky”).

Just as in other languages, fairly mild positive words (like funny and cheeky) can perhaps be used to offend other people but only in certain extreme contexts. (For example, telling a police officer he is “being cheeky” when he is cautioning you for exceeding the speed limit would be very unwise.) It is not really possible to give comprehensive guidance here, but you are on fairly safe ground when using these words correctly.

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  • I'd be more than mildly surprised at hearing a child call an adult cheeky. It's hard for me to imagine a five or six year old who understands the teachers' pecking order well enough to know when someone's bucking it.
    – Juhasz
    Jan 21 '20 at 4:10
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    @Juhasz Yes, the only circumstance where I can imagine it is where families might overuse a word so that a child picks it up and applies it widely themselves - that is, they call someone “cheeky” without really understanding what it means. Jan 21 '20 at 9:42
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I honestly can't think of a way 'funny' might mean dishonest or unfriendly. It can mean 'strange' if intended that way. Can you you provide references to the dictionary definitions you saw?

In any case, people will interpret ambiguous words in the way you intend them if you use the appropriate non-verbal cues, such as tone of voice and facial expression. I can't really teach you those in writing so I'd suggest observing people to find out how to do it. If you want to convey a positive meaning, smiling or chuckling when you say it is a good start. If you want to be sure they understand, then add an explanation.

My daughter's teacher is funny. She told a great joke during our conference. (humorous)
My daughter's teacher is funny. She said something really strange during our conference. (strange)

You'll probably have to ask your daughter what she meant when she said the teacher was 'funny', if it's not clear. There's no way of knowing otherwise.

I would advise you not to call someone cheeky, unless you're on very good terms with them and you're speaking casually to them or their friends. It could easily be taken the wrong way. Even if being cheeky is funny, it's still slightly rude or disrespectful, which make it negative under most circumstances. It's actually not a word that I would expect most kindergartners to know how to use appropriately. I'd suggest investigating where your daughter heard it. The kids at school might be repeating something their parents have said without really knowing what it means. They do that often.

On a totally unrelated subject, native speakers use the plural in the phrase you used,

My daughter says one of her friends is funny

If she were talking about one friend, the appropriate form is

My daughter says her friend is funny.

But she's talking about one of many. Many is plural, so 'friends' is plural.

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  • I think you will know these if you like about it... 3. arousing suspicion; underhanded; deceitful: “There was something funny about those extra charges.” 4. strange; peculiar; odd: “The car is making a funny noise.” Jan 22 '20 at 1:59
  • Thanks, @OrbitalAussie. I mentioned #4 in my answer. I think it's a stretch to define the meaning of 'funny' in the sentence in #3 as 'deceitful'. It falls under the category of 'strange' to my mind. But it looks like not everybody agrees.
    – dwilli
    Jan 22 '20 at 5:36

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