Words at Play

7 Words That Will Expand Your Understanding of Cheese

From 'hard cheese' to 'headcheese', this list goes way beyond dairy


In the pantheon of the less, uh, formal holidays, cheese—what Clifton Fadiman called "milk's leap toward immortality"—is granted a remarkable number of days. The folks at National Calendar Day count 19 cheese-related "national days," including one devoted simply to the food itself—National Cheese Day on June 4—and another devoted to those who love that food: National Cheese Lover's Day on January 20.

The word cheese likewise is granted a remarkable assortment of lexical properties in the lexicon. It's remarkable especially for something defined literally in such unappetizing terms as these: "a food consisting of the coagulated, compressed, and usually ripened curd of milk separated from the whey," and "an often cylindrical cake of this food." Cheese lovers, or turophiles, of course know cheese is so much more than its definition. What follows, however, is not an examination of the food, but of the place—or places—the word cheese holds in our language.

The noun cheese is not limited to its literal uses. Beyond referring to the food, the word cheese can also refer to something resembling cheese in shape or consistency, such as the mass of pulpy residue left in a cider press when the liquid from the apples has been extracted.

It can also refer to something cheap or shabby:

Arising from a lengthy snooze of some kind, the most easily parodied member of Guns N' Roses staggers past today's rock/pop stars and presents a pucker-faced package of amped-up '80s cheese metal.
— Ian Christe, CD Review, May 1995

TV news had leeched the sincerity out of my personality and replaced it with pure cheese, turning me into a walking caricature.
— Richard Speer, Newsweek, 21 Aug. 2000

And in Merriam-Webster Unabridged, the word is also defined with a baseball-specific slang meaning, "pitches that are fastballs," a synonym of smoke and heat:

Glavine was never someone who overpowered hitters, he didn't blow them away with the high cheese like a Nolan Ryan or a Sandy Koufax.
— Ron Borges, The Boston Herald, 27 July 2014

There's another noun cheese. The word as used to refer to someone important is unrelated etymologically to the food. Its probable origin is both the Hindi word cīz and the Urdu word chīz, both meaning "thing," and both tracing to the Persian chīz.

You can use it with big if you want.

And Jack Nicholson, who's not listed in the credits, appears as the big cheese, the New York anchorman who makes millions of dollars a year, surveys the world through mildly curious, jaundiced eyes, and holds his head up high, in full confidence that it's a national treasure.
—Pauline Kael, The New Yorker, 11 Jan. 1988

Cheese is also a verb.

"Don't you love this time of the evening, Mr. Wooster, when the sun has gone to bed and all the bunnies come out to have their little suppers? When I was a child, I used to think that rabbits were gnomes, and that if I held my breath and stayed quite still, I should see the fairy queen."

Indicating with a reserved gesture that this was just the sort of loony thing I should have expected her to think as a child, I returned to the point.

"Talking of shedding tears," I said firmly, "it may interest you to know that there is an aching heart in Brinkley Court."

This held her. She cheesed the rabbit theme. Her face, which had been aglow with what I supposed was a pretty animation, clouded. She unshipped a sigh that sounded like the wind going out of a rubber duck.
— P.G. Wodehouse, Right Ho, Jeeves, 1934

That's right: cheese the verb means "to put an end to (something)." It's a lactic synonym of transitive stop.

The verb is sometimes found in the phrase cheese it as a warning of danger:

They sparred again, now feinting forward, now stepping backward, like two young turkey cocks. A tall, blue-clad, brass-buttoned figure rounded the corner, and Shultz raised the alarm. "Cheese it, the cop!"
— Herman Gastrell Seely, _ A Son of the City (A Story of Boy Life)_, 1917

If you're cheesed off, you're angry or irritated. You're also probably British.

A lot of owners of businesses along the affected stretch of road are cheesed off.
The Evening Post (Leeds, England), 7 June 1974

No one who heard Andrew W.K.'s 2001 debut … was on the fence about it. You either adored it or were cheesed off by its relentlessly cheerful, anthemic inversion of metal.
— Rob Kemp, Rolling Stone, 18 Sept. 2003

Headcheese: it's a jellied loaf or sausage made from edible parts of the head, feet, and sometimes the tongue and heart especially of a pig.

If it were actually cheese, the vegetarians among us might eat it. But no.

The word is thought to be from the Dutch hoofdkaas, which translates as "headcheese." We have no explanation for the Dutch word.

The noun cheeseparing most often refers to miserly economizing—the kind of frugal spending practiced by those who hate to part with their money.

My wants were few, and I had no more desire for personal spending than had Ambrose, in his time, but this cheeseparing on the part of my godfather induced in me a sort of fury that made me determined to have my way and use the money that was mine.
— Daphne du Maurier, My Cousin Rachel, 1951

While many charities have undergone painful downsizing, they fear that their operating model won't survive the relentless cheeseparing the government is indulging in.
— Randeep Ramesh, The Guardian, 15 May 2013

Though the use is now obsolete, cheeseparing originally referred to actual cheese—specifically to bits of cheese trimmed from a larger portion. Shakespeare's Falstaff, in Henry IV, remembers the thin Justice Shallow "like a man made after supper of a cheese-paring," using a simile that eventually extended the word's meaning to "something worthless or insignificant," a use still current though not common.

The "miserly economizing" meaning ostensibly ties to the literal meaning too: those who bother to pare the rind off cheese, rather than to slice it off, just might be the same type to be extra frugal with money too.

Hard Cheese
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Americans might be surprised to learn that hard cheese can be rather sympathetic. Or, to put it more accurately, the phrase hard cheese is used (by the British) as a synonym of tough luck to express sympathy. Both phrases, though, are prone to irony, in which case that sympathy is about as welcome as a favorite cheese gone hard and impossible to eat.

Make sure one's opponent faces the sun; serve underarm due to an unspecified war wound; lob over their head if they are at the net, dribble it over the net if they are at the baseline; call their shots out without watching the ball; and every time they crash sun-blinded into the net, give a sympathetic cry of "Hard cheese!"
— Tim Stanley, The Daily Telegraph (London), 24 Apr. 2014




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