cheese
ND4
Does anyone know how the term cheese or cheesy came to into usage to describe sappy, or overly trite art, music, drama, etc... like bad heavy metal, Michael Bolton, etc.
AdSumADS
No definitive answer, yet, but here're directions to research. To clarify one point, this sense of "cheese," i.e., "cheesy," means kitschy, or cheap or shabby. Here're some routes:

  1. "Cheese," for something or someone important, as in "the big cheese," is (likely) from the Urdu, chIz, meaning "thing." So, "cheesy," may have started sarcastically as for something that poignantly fails to be important.

  2. There may have been a food-stuff, a cheaper version of which contained a great deal of cheese as a kind of bulk filler to save on the more expensive ingredients.

  3. The practice of saying "cheese" in order to affect a broad smile (through the pronciation of the long E's), combined with a recognition of swindler's wearing a false smile, might have led to the attribution of the term to such falsehood.

  4. The banal nature of softcore pornographic nudity as opposed to high art, might have led the slang "cheesecake [photography]" to become streamlined into simply "cheap."

Lewis Joplin II
"CHEESY, worthless, bad, 1896 (see AMERICAN CHEESE for details)...Because of the smell of certain varieties, cheese was used in a pejorative way, to mean 'it smells,' by the late 18th century, with cheesy being used to mean 'worthless, bad' by 1896. On the other hand, 'the cheese' meant the exact thing needed or an excellent thing or person in England by 1818, with this use spreading to the U.S. by the 1830s. However, this good connotation of 'the cheese' is not from our word 'cheese' at all but from the Persian or Urdu 'chiz,' thing, which led Englishmen in India to use 'the cheese' 'or 'the thing.' This use of 'the cheese' have us 'big cheese,' meaning a boss or important person around 1890, which then became a disparaging term for a bossy or disliked person in the 1920s.

In the 1840s and 50s most English and American schoolgirls knew that 'to make cheese' meant to twirl around so that one's skirts and petticoats flared out... 'to make cheese' also became a vulgar term for a girl willingly exposing her legs...a possible explanation of our 1940 World War II term 'cheesecake'..." From "Listening to America" by Stuart Berg Flexner (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1982).

Return to the archive