In this blog series, intern Julia explores the everyday language surrounding cheese, from etymology to idioms to associations. Learn why we “say cheese” when we take a photo, why once upon a time we believed that the moon was made of green cheese, or even the history of the word cheese itself. Last week, we investigated why mice are always linked with cheese. Plus, be sure to answer the prompt at the end of the post each week for a chance to win a copy of culture’s ultimate cheese pairing guide: Cheese+. Amy is the winner from last week. Congrats and good luck to everyone this week!
I still remember many childhood nights sitting down with my family to watch my father’s favorite movie, the 1990 Wallace and Gromit film A Grand Day Out. In it, Wallace and his loyal dog Gromit want a cheese-and-cracker snack, but they have eaten all the cheese and the stores are closed. Together they build a rocket to go to the moon because, as Wallace reads, “everyone knows the moon is made of cheese.” At the time, I took the plot in stride, accepting the idea that the moon is made of delicious curds without any concerns – this was a cartoon, after all, and I was young enough that nothing was too absurd.
Then a few years ago, I read The Distance of the Moon, a short story in Italo Calvino’s collection Cosmicomics. In this beautifully written tale, people go to the moon to collect “moon milk,” which is a soft, cream cheese-like substance enthusiastically consumed by those in the story. Clearly, the idea of the moon being made of cheese has traversed time and location – Calvino wrote Cosmicomics in Italy in 1968. And I’m sure that internationally there exist countless pop culture references to cheese on the moon that I simply have not come across.
Of course, we know that the moon is not made of cheese at all, despite the prevalence of the idea. Personally, I found it hard to believe that this myth was, in fact, a myth at all…what could possibly have inspired people to think the moon consisted of cheese (and, more importantly, what type of cheese is it)?
The curds, it turns out, are green – not in terms of color, but in the implications of naivety or youth. The best known record goes back to The Proverbs of John Heywood, a collection of adages (made by the well-known 16th century English writer Heywood) published in 1546:
Ye fetch circumquaques to make me beleeve,
Or thinke, that the moone is made of a greene cheese
According to an article on the Mental Floss website, the idea of moon-as-cheese actually comes from before the 16th century. In a medieval Servian folk tale, a hungry wolf is tricked by a fox into believing a reflection of the moon on a still pond is in fact a yummy wheel of cheese. Eager to get a meal, the wolf drinks the whole pond and bursts. Similar tales of one character tricking another appear across cultures, indicating that the idea of the moon being made of green cheese means, simply, that someone is very gullible. The idea was probably best outlined by John Wilkins, an English philosopher, in 1638: “You may… soon persuade some country peasants that the moon is made of greene cheese, (as we say).”
“It’s doubtful that anyone ever actually believed it, at least not academically,” explains the Mental Floss article.
Whether due to Heywood’s popularity or humanity’s love of cheese we will never know, but the phrase has spread throughout the globe. Today the trope is still going strong – from Wallace and Gromit to Tom and Jerry to an old McDonald’s commercial to the “half-baked ideas cookies” in The Phantom Tollbooth, pop culture has turned the moon into cheese again and again. As an April Fool’s joke several years ago, NASA announced that the moon did in fact have an expiration date, thanks to the cheese making up the satellite – the perfect trick for a day devoted to testing people’s gullibility.
Technically, the cheese on the moon is “green,” or young. But if the moon was made of a specific cheese, what type would it be? Would it be more than one type? Answer in the comments section by May 13, 2014 at 12:00 midnight EDT for a chance to win a copy of our latest special issue, Cheese+. Don’t forget to stop by next week, when we’ll find out where all the “big cheeses” came from!Featured photo by davespilbrow via Compfight cc