The meaning and origin of words and phrases related to cheese
Cheese is a soft, semi-solid or hard food produced from milk curds or whey. Most are made by compressing curds. The harder the cheese, the lower its water content. The word cheese comes from the Old English for curdled milk, cése, cýse, which is itself from the Latin for cheese, cāseus, which also gave us the word casein, a protein found in milk.
Big cheese means an important and influencial person. It apparently originated as US slang in the early 20th century. It is thought that it may be from the Persian word chīz meaning 'thing'.
Apart from meaning something that contains or is like cheese, cheesy has other meanings of something that is, unsubtle or obviously unauthentic (e.g. a cheesy smile), something overly sentimental, clichéd or corny or something cheap and tacky. It is possible that the insincere meaning relates to the photographer’s favourite instruction for his sitters to ‘say cheese’ when he wants them to smile. The choice of cheese as the word to say appears to have no particular relevance other than that it causes the sayer to bare their teeth. Many other words could have a similar effect.
The material known as cheese cloth is a loosely-woven cotton cloth often used to make shirts. It was named after the lighter but similarly loosely-woven gauze used to wrap cheeses and which is recorded back in the 17th century.
Meaning ‘fed up’, cheesed off is one of a variety of 'offs' with the same meaning, e.g. brassed off, browned off. The expression is of uncertain origin.
Hard cheese is a colloquialism for bad luck and is first recorded in 1876.
Cheesecakes may use crushed biscuits, pastry or even sponge cake for their base and the cheese used can be either a soft curd cheese or the whey cheese ricotta. They may be baked in a cool oven or simply chilled in a fridge. So-called cheesecake photographs are pictures of attractive women in sexually provocative poses and are the female equivalent of beefcake photographs. This use of the word cheesecake appeared during the Depression of the 1930s. More than one explanation of its origin have been offered. One is that as during the 1930s simply having enough to eat was a daily worry for millions of Americans, cheesecake would have seemed a luxury beyong reach to many. It has been suggested that the link lies in the perceived unattainability of the subjects of ‘cheesecake’ photographs and of the dessert itself. Another suggested origin is that they were named from muslin – similar to that used to wrap cheese - put over the front of the camera lens to soften the image to disguise skin blemishes in the models.
If two people are incompatible because they are fundamentally different, they may be described as being like chalk and cheese. The phrase simply refers to the dissimilarity of these two substances.
Authentic double Gloucester is made with milk from Gloucester cattle. It is quite dark yellow in colour as a result of annatto being added and has a full flavour. Its unusual name comes from the fact that there were originally two types of Gloucester cheese, single and double Gloucester. Single Gloucester was made using the milk from morning milking which has a lower fat content than milk taken at the evening milking. In contrast, Double Gloucester used a combination of both milks.
Made famous by the Wallace and Grommit films, Stinking Bishop cheese is named after a drink, namely a variety of perry pear of that name. The cheese was so-called because perry made from the stinking bishop variety is used to wash the cheese in order to give it its distinctive flavor and odour. The perry itself was named after one Frederick Bishop, a 19th century farmer who gained the nickname ‘stinking’ as a result of his riotous behaviour.
THE EPONYMOUS SEMORDNILAP CHEESE
The Cornish semi-hard cheese yarg is famous for its edible coating of wild nettle leaves. It gets its unusual name from the surname of Alan and Jenny Gray who first made the cheese in the early 1980s. Yarg is simply the Gray’s surname, reversed. This makes the word yarg an eponymous semordnilap. An eponym is a word that is derived from someone’s name, whilst semordnilap is the name given to a word that is another word spelt backwards. Semordnilap itself is the word palindrome, spelt backwards. A palindrome is a word that reads the same backwards as it does forwards. The word comes from the Greek palindromes meaning ‘running back again’, from pálin again, back + drómos ‘a running’, ‘course’ (as in aerodrome, hippodrome, syndrome (‘running together’) and dromedary – running camel.
Another cheesy semordnilap is subject of the old joke, ‘What cheese is made backwards?’ The answer to this conundrum is, of course, edam.
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