‘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.
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.
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).
A 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).
Tomato 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’.
An 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.
The 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.
British 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.