Ooey, gooey, and oh so delicious: the grilled cheese sandwich. Every April 12 celebrates this delectable dish, and just thinking about it makes us hungry. But it also gets us wondering about cheese-filled words and idioms. Today we sink our teeth into the language of cheese sayings.
Some really old cheese
The word cheese is an old one, dating all the way back to the 13th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Its etymology is long and winding: in a nutshell, it ultimately comes form the Latin caseus, meaning, you guessed it, “cheese.”
Some simple Scottish word fare
Cheese and bread (sometimes bread and cheese) is an old Scottish phrase that refers to plain and simple food, says the OED, or food that’s needed for subsistence. Its earliest citation is from about 1530 while bread and cheese was first spotted in written form in Shakespeare’s 1602 play, The Merry Wives of Windsor: “I love not the humour of bread and cheese.”
Cheese it, the cops!
Meaning to stop, hide, or flee, cheese it could be thieves’ cant. The OED cites 1811 as the earliest recorded usage although it was likely in use long before then. While its origin is unknown, one theory says that it could be a corruption of cease.
As for the phrase, “Cheese it, the cops!” World Wide Words says an early version appears in O. Henry’s 1908 story, “The Voice of the City”: “The defence of Mr Conover was so prompt and admirable that the conflict was protracted until the onlookers unselfishly gave the warning cry of ‘Cheese it — the cop!’”
This cheese spins you right round, baby
So what do you do to amuse yourself when you’re a schoolgirl in 1835? You make cheeses of course. To make or perform a cheese was the act of spinning to flare out one’s petticoats, then landing on the ground with petticoats spread like a wheel of cheese. The phrase would also come mean “to curtsy deeply.”
That’s the cheese!
The cheese is an old British slang term for “the correct or proper thing; the finished or perfect thing,” says Century Dictionary. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, it comes from the Urdu word chiz, meaning “a thing,” and was “picked up by British in India by 1818 and used in the sense of ‘a big thing’ (especially in the phrase the real chiz).”
We’re in the cheese
Slang for money, this sense of cheese first appears in 1850, says the OED, which contradicts the popular theory that the meaning came about at the end of World War II when Americans received a big piece of cheese as part of their welfare benefits.
The big cheese
This term for the big boss or an important person (or someone who thinks they’re important) might come from the cheese meaning the best thing. The OED points to a quote from an 1882 publication, The New York Commercial Advertiser: “There is a paper published in Florida called the ‘Cracker’. We presume its editor is the cheese.”
The phrase the main cheese first appeared in writing in 1899 while the OED’s earliest citation for the big cheese is from Raymond Chandler’s 1934 short story, “Smart-Aleck Kill” published in Black Mask magazine: “So the big cheese give me the job.”
Grilled cheese is the bee’s knees
According to How Stuff Works, the grilled cheese sandwich as we know it today can be traced back to the 1920s when a bread slicer was invented “that made distributing white bread easy and affordable.” By then James L. Kraft had patented and was distributing affordable processed cheese. Combine the two and voila! The homemade grilled cheese sandwich.
In 1929, the phrase grilled cheese sandwich appeared in print for the first time (at least as far as the OED can tell) in a publication called The Van Wert (Ohio) Daily Bulletin:
Grilled Cheese Sandwiches—spread bread with butter and place a thin slice of cheese between two slices. Either toast or saute in a little bacon fat over the fire in a frying pan.
Sounds delicious to us!
Meanwhile cheesecake is the cat’s pajamas
Cheesecake meaning revealing photographs of women is also from 1929, says the OED. From a an issue of Photo-Era magazine: “It was with the ship-news boys, too, that I learned to shoot ‘cheese-cakes’.” However, how this meaning originated is unknown. The male equivalent, beefcake, is from 1949.
So why the heck do we say cheese when we have our picture taken? No one knows for sure, but the earliest mention is from 1943:
[Ambassador Joseph E.] Davies disclosed the formula while having his own picture taken on the set of his ‘Mission to Moscow.’ It’s simple. Just say “Cheese,” It’s an automatic smile.”
The ambassador goes on to say he learned the trick from an “astute” and “very great politician.” He won’t name names but it’s believed he’s referring to Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Prior to say cheese was simply cheese for a smiling expression. It originated prior to 1930 as Rugby School slang.
This British slang term for being annoyed or disgruntled is from 1941 or earlier: “‘I’m browned off,’ announces Taff. ‘I’m cheesed.’” However, where the phrase comes from is largely unknown.
Cheesy, not in a good way
Before cheesy meant corny or overly sentimental (originating about 1943, says the OED), it meant ostentatious or showy (1858) and inferior or second-rate (1863). These earlier terms were perhaps an ironic reversal of cheese meaning the best.
Who cut the cheese?
We expected this saying for passing gas to be a lot older, but the OED’s earliest citation is from the 1972 film, American Graffiti: “Hey man, who cut the cheese?” However, J.E. Lighter’s The Historical Dictionary of American Slang records oral use from 1959.
As for where the phrase comes from, that seems to be a mystery. The Phrase Finder says “cut” has been used to mean to expel gas since the 1800s, but we couldn’t find such evidence in the OED. We’ll just have to leave it to our imaginations — and our noses!
If you’re hungry for more, check out these cheesy lists.