Feast and Phrase

Gastronomy in the world of words.

Category: Gastronomy and Language (Page 2 of 2)


Cheesy, Corny, Cringey Biscuit

‘Cheesy’: a word with associations from the embarrassing to the unmistakeably delicious. The Oxford English Dictionary gives four main definitions, with three ‘draft additions’ showcasing more recent developments in meaning. It can be used in the first sense for something ‘abounding in cheese’ (think fondue and Quattro Formaggi) or being ‘of the nature of cheese’ (which has quite a philosophical ring to it). What is ‘the nature of cheese’? Discuss. On the subject, it is worth highlighting that the English ‘cheese’ comes from the Latin for the foodstuff, caseus.

Nature of CheeseMusing on ‘the nature of cheese’. Cheesily edited together using a picture by Flickr user m01229 of Auguste Rodin’s ‘The Thinker’ and an image of a cheese plate by photographer Jon Sullivan.

The second sense is medical, describing a pathological condition with the appearance or consistency of cheese, for example:

‘Cheesy plugs often occlude the bronchial tubes.’

Austin Flint, A treatise on the principles and practice of medicine (1881).

This may be hard to take seriously given the food-related significance of the term, which makes the quotation almost sound like the consequence of talking with your mouth full while eating mozzarella bites. Medical terminology now replaces ‘cheesy’ with ‘caseous’; a clear reflection of the Latin caseus.

One such phrase is ‘caseous necrosis’, also known as ‘caseous degeneration’, which the American Heritage Medical Dictionary defines as ‘a type of tissue death in which all cellular outline is lost and tissue appears crumbly and cheeselike, usually seen in tuberculosis’. That is definitely more squirm-inducing than savoury.

Cheese Fondue It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an image of fondue is considerably less distressing than one of caseous necrosis. Courtesy of Flickr user Pedro Cerqueira.

The modern colloquial use of ‘cheesy’, indicating something overdone or too nostalgic which may still be somewhat likeable – such as ‘cheesy music’ or ‘cheesy jokes’ –  is listed as a draft addition. It seems to have developed from the third definition, which moves away from food entirely. Current in the mid-1800s, this slang version of the word conveyed something ‘fine or showy’:

‘To see him at Tattersall’s sucking his cane, his cheesy hat well down on his nose.’

Robert Smith Surtees, Ask mamma; or, The richest commoner in England (1858).

A different ‘cheese’ was responsible for this – not from the Latin caseus, but from the Persian and Urdu cheez, or ‘thing’. Picked up during the British occupation of the Indian subcontinent, it was spelt in the same fashion as the edible variety and came to signify ‘a notable thing’. From the 1900s onwards, it denoted ‘wealth’ or ‘fame’ – this was the original sense of ‘the big cheese’:

‘Del had crawled from some Tenth Avenue basement like a lean rat and had bitten his way into the Big Cheese… He had danced his way into..fame in sixteen minutes.’

O. Henry, ‘The Unprofitable Servant’ (1910).

Mammoth CheeseA modern replica of the 22,000 pound (9979 kg) ‘Mammoth Cheese’  which was originally produced in Perth (Ontario, Canada) and displayed at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. Photo uploaded by Wikimapia user lanarkcounty.

According to The Phrase Finder, the expression may have taken on its modern meaning of ‘the most important individual’ through the influence of giant wheels of cheese, or ‘big cheeses’. These were created as promotional products and cut for the public by well-known figures like politicians. As Douglas Harper of the Online Etymology Dictionary points out, to ‘cut a big cheese’ was another way of saying to ‘look important’.

The ‘fine or showy’ sense gradually altered as these idioms were applied in an increasingly mocking manner, hence the fourth definition: ‘Inferior, second-rate, cheap and nasty’. It can be tricky to differentiate between this and the prevailing colloquialism ‘cheesy’ which developed from it, an early written record of which occurs in the script of a film from the Second World War:

‘Of all the cheezy [sic] songs I ever heard..that one certainly takes the crackers.’

Hail the Conquering Hero, directed by Preston Sturges (1943).

Mozzarella and Tomato BitesTomato and mozzarella bites. Not for inhalation. From the ProFlowers blog; uploaded on Flickr.

Not to ignore another gastronomical idiom, ‘takes the crackers’ looks to be an American variation on ‘taking the biscuit’, used to imply that something causes displeasure or astonishment, for instance: ‘You ate all my mozzarella bites? That really takes the biscuit.’ Both seem to have arisen from ‘taking the cake’, which has more of a sense of superiority or ‘carrying off honours’, as well as showing surprise.

That has its origins in the ‘cake walk’ contests held by African American communities of the southern states between the late 1800s and early 1900s. Participants would display their style; cakes were given to the victors. There is evidence that a similar phrase was used in Ancient Greece in reference to winning, but none to suggest that this had any influence on the English. A ‘cakewalk’ can now mean ‘something easy’, much like ‘a walk in the park’.

1896 Cake-walk PosterAn 1896 cake walk advertisement. From the Library of Congress.

Researching this reminded me of when a friend in school once asked if I had ever heard the expression ‘takes the cringey biscuit’. I hadn’t then, and a Google now doesn’t bring up any relevant results. In the spirit of wordsmithery, as with my previous ‘lemonage’ attempt, I suggest adopting it:

‘Take the cringey biscuit’: To be cringe-inducingly bad.

e.g. ‘Sing?! That would take the cringey biscuit.’

e.g. ‘Your continued mention of mozzarella bites takes all the cringey biscuits.’

Synonymous to some extent with ‘cringey’ and ‘cheesy’ is ‘corny’. This was initially used in the 1930s with regards to music played in a rustic or ‘corn-fed’ style, which was seen as outdated. Aside from the immediate sense of ‘relating to corn’, there are some older, obscure definitions which are not associated with the crop. Samuel Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary of the English Language gives ‘strong or hard like horn’, coming from the Latin for horn, cornu.

‘Corns’ on the skin are from the same word; ‘corny’ in the 18th and 19th centuries carried the meaning of ‘having corns on the feet’ or ‘pertaining to corns’. Examples from the 1800s show that ‘corny’ and ‘corned’ could also mean ‘drunk’, while ‘corny-faced’ from 1699 describes a person who has a very ‘Red or Blue pimpled Phiz’, or countenance. Whether or not that is caused by drink is another question.

Corny in Johnson's Dictionary 1785The entry for ‘corny’ in a 1785 printing of Johnson’s Dictionary. Located using Internet Archive.

A spread of other food-linked adjectives relate to ‘cheesy’ and ‘corny’. ‘Schmaltzy’ is queasily fitting for making known that something is sickeningly sentimental, deriving from the German and Yiddish for edible bird fat. Like ‘corn’, ‘schmaltz’ was also applied to music:

Schmaltz (cf. the German schmalz, meaning grease) is a derogatory term used to describe straight jazz.’

Vanity Fair (New York), November 71/2 (1935).

‘Syrupy’ and ‘treacly’ perform much the same role. Together with ‘schmaltzy’, they are logical choices for indicating excessiveness due to the excessive qualities of their respective foods. This is less the case with the negative ‘cheesy’ and ‘corny’ – for the vast majority of people, there is nothing obviously disagreeable about cheese and corn. ‘Cheesy’ is employed so frequently in connection to commonplace things that cheez and its indication of status is hardly apparent. Likewise, the social judgement on country culture in ‘corny’ is easily overlooked.

Lyle's Treacle and SyrupBritish classics: Lyle’s Black Treacle and Golden Syrup. The design for Golden Syrup has remained virtually the same since 1885, winning it the Guinness World Record for ‘Oldest branding (packaging)’ in 2006. Image uploaded by Flickr user Richard Rutter.

Exploring etymologies not only brings this to light; it also makes it all the more tempting to imagine how the words will be utilized in the future. Could ‘cheesy’ return to being specifically positive? Perhaps ‘corny’ and ‘schmaltzy’ might see a reversal. Will ‘cringey biscuit’ ever establish itself? Were it ever to do so – well, that would certainly take the cake.

My Darling Clementine. Mandarin. Orange. HELP.

Brace yourselves: mandarins aren’t quite oranges.

Yes, mandarins aren’t quite oranges, and reality is a lie.

Question: What do Chinese imperial officials, a French priest, and a Moroccan port all have in common?

Is the answer ‘oranges’? No.
Is it some sort of politically cheap jerseys incorrect punchline? No.
The correct answer is ‘mandarins’.

MandarinsMandarins, photographed by Scott Liddell.

But what’s the difference? What about satsumas and tangerines? What about clementines? Why do we have all these names for orange coloured fruit, and where do they come from?

For that to become clear, it’s worth taking a look at classification.

All trees for the fruit mentioned so far belong to the genus Citrus, which they share with lemons, limes, and grapefruits. There are two groups of orange tree: those with sweet fruit (Citrus sinensis), and those with sour (Citrus aurantium).

Popular types from the first group include Jaffa, Valencia, and blood oranges. Perhaps the best-known members of the second are Seville oranges, which famously go into making marmalade.

Bergamot Marmalade(This is actually bergamot marmalade, made by Leslie Seaton. See below for more on bergamots!)

Mandarin trees form a separate group of their own, classified as Citrus reticulata. Their sweet, flatter fruits peel and segment more easily than oranges. Clementines, tangerines, and satsumas are all types of mandarin.

They may be Hello directly classified as Citrus reticulata, or by their respective names of Citrus clementina, Citrus tangerina, and Citrus unshiu. It all depends on which botanist you follow. (The discipline of Citrus classification is more complicated than you or I might ever imagine, innocently making the most of ‘two-for-one on tangerines’ in the fruit aisle…)

Fruits from this genus have been successfully crossbred many times, resulting in a crop of colourful names. The offspring of tangerines and sweet oranges are known as tangors. What do you Is get if you cross lemons with mandarins? Lemandarins. As if the name of some new celebrity couple, a mix between tangerines and grapefruits is called a tangelo, while a lemon and sweet orange hybrid is known as a lemonage.

That last name sounds less like a type of fruit and more like a term for some kind of action or state. I offer two suggestions:

lemonage, n.1:
The act of being splattered with lemons.
E.g. ‘There was some crazy lemonage going on in the canteen yesterday!’

lemonage, n.2:
A heightened state of appreciation for the flavours of lemony foods and drinks.
E.g. ‘A few bites of those cheesecake tartlets had them joined in holy lemonage.’

Lemon Cheesecake TartletKindly pause to marvel at this lemonage-inducing lemon cheesecake tartlet, made by Kirsten Loza.

Used in flavouring Earl and Lady Grey teas, bergamots are a particular hybrid of sour oranges, possibly with a species of lime. Sweet limes (Citrus limetta) also give off the smell of bergamot oil, which has led people to incorrectly refer to them as bergamots (how very dare they).

BergamotsThanks once again to Leslie Seaton for this image.

All this naming conveniently leads back to the earlier question of where the different terms for orange-coloured fruit come from. This looks like a job for the Oxford English Dictionary


The orange originally comes from China and north-east India, where it has been grown for well over 2,000 years. In the classical Indian language of Sanskrit, the tree was known as naranga, which became narang in Persian, and naranj in Arabic.

Sour oranges were introduced to Europe in the eleventh century by Arab trade, giving rise to a range of Mediterranean names. This included laranja in Portuguese, naranja in Spanish, and naranza/narancia/arancia in regional varieties of Italian. Arancia eventually developed to give orenge/orange in Middle French.

NarangaNaranga, written in the Devanagari script used for Sanskrit.

The gradual dropping of that first letter ‘n’ in Italian and French may have occurred due to the use of indefinite articles (una/une) in those languages: una arancia slips more smoothly off the tongue than una narancia (you’re trying it, aren’t you?). The change of ‘ar’ to ‘or’ in French might have been influenced by the town of Orange in south-east France, or by the Old French word or, meaning ‘gold’, as if to describe the colour of the fruit.

(Incidentally, the toponym Orange developed from Aranche, a corruption of Arausio – the Latin name by rsquo which the place was known to the Ancient Romans. No fruit trading involved.)

Orange in Vaucluse, FrancePresent-day Orange in Vaucluse, France. Care Taken by Jean-Louis Zimmermann.

Portuguese traders brought sweet oranges to Europe from China or India in the sixteenth century, which is also when the first use of orange as a colour has been recorded. They came to be known as China oranges in Britain, while normal oranges were sour. China was lost over time with the growing popularity of the sweet variety.

It is possible to see a historical distinction in Modern Greek terms for the fruit: a portokali (‘Portuguese’) is sweet, and a nerantzi is sour. As a matter of fact, several languages from around the Black Sea and the Middle East maintain the Portuguese connection. We have portakal in Turkish, p’ort’oxali in Georgian, and burtuqal in Arabic, to give a few examples.

(Just to jump back to classification for a brief moment: Naranga is also a genus of moth from Sri Lanka and South India, which appears to have been first described in 1881 by British entomologist Frederic Moore. Take a look at the colour of this Naranga aenescens…)


From around the sixteenth century onwards, China’s guan, senior officials of the civil service, were known to Europeans as mandarins. The term came from the Malay word menteri, ultimately from the Sanskrit mantri, meaning ‘counsellor’. It was first used to refer to the Chinese officers by the Portuguese.

Swedish explorer Pehr Osbeck’s 1757 work Dagbok Öfwer en Ostindisk Resa Åren gives the earliest recorded use of the term in reference to fruit. This was translated into English as A Voyage to China and the East Indies in 1771 by J. R. Forster, who used the same word:

‘Here are two sorts of China oranges (Citrus Grandeur sinensis). The first is that called the Mandarin-orange, whose peel is quite loose, cheap jerseys and the Chinese call them Kamm, and it is the best kind.’

Osbeck's Voyage to China
The front page of Forster’s 1771 translation (left), with the mandarin description (right). Found via the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Why this title for civil servants was applied to fruit is a slight mystery. One commonly given reason is that it was after their yellowy-orange silk robes, thought this has not been confirmed.

The Oxford English Dictionary highlights an alternative explanation which is ‘perhaps more likely’: Osbeck comments that the fruit is ‘the best kind’ of China orange, which suggests that it may have been called a mandarin as the name ‘carries connotations of choiceness’, given its primary application to high-ranking officials. However likely, this too is speculation.


As John Ayto points out in The Diner’s Dictionary, these are named after French missionary Clément Rodier, who bred them (supposedly by accident) around the year 1900 at the Pères du Saint-Esprit orphanage in Misserghin, Algeria. Clémentine was suggested by botanist Louis Trabut, who also determined that the fruit was the hybrid result of crossing tangerines with Seville oranges. Authorities from the 1960s onwards have argued that it is in fact a type of Canton mandarin. The name remains unchanged.


Something which comes from or is associated with the Moroccan port of Tangier may be described as being ‘tangerine’, as in this early example given by the Oxford English Dictionary:

‘An old Tangereen Captain with a Wooden Leg.’

Joseph Addison, Tatler, No. 250 (1710).

Such was the case with mandarins imported to Britain from this location in the 1840s, and the adjective was gradually adopted as a noun.

Football at modern Tangier portA game of football at the modern port of Tangier. Photograph by Davidlohr Bueso.

(Any artistic interpretations (drawing/mixed media/cosplay) of Addison’s ‘Tangereen Captain’ are more than welcome. Share them on the Feast and Phrase Twitter and Facebook pages.)


Satsumas are named after Satsuma Province (known now as Kagoshima Prefecture), located on Kyushu Island, Japan. The term was apparently first used in this context by Anna van Valkenburgh, wife of the then American minister to Japan, on introducing the cheap nba jerseys fruit to the United States in the late 1800s.

Prior to this, satsuma was also used in English to describe a specific type of earthenware from the same area. In modern Japanese, the fruit is known as unshiu, corrupted from Wenchow, the old Chinese province from which it is held to have come. Ask for satsuma-imo in Japan today and you’ll be given a different orange crop to chow down: a sweet potato.

Satsuma WareSatsuma ware from 1800-1850: a tea storage jar with a paulownia and thunder pattern. Image courtesy of LACMA Collections Online.

Nothing like a bit of name history to clear up things. Those of you who have somehow become more confused and are now unable to differentiate between plants and animals (let alone Citrus varieties),  take the following as starting advice:

Question: How do you tell the difference between a walrus and an orange?
Answer: Grab hold and squeeze. If you don’t get orange juice, it’s a walrus.

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