Say It with Cheese
In the ever-changing game of wordplay, cheese is much more than a noun
Even a cheeseAholic might have to think twice when asked if he is a cheesepodder or a cheesecaker. Likewise, would he know how to dodge a cheese-knife? Or would he just cheese it?
Dairy curds have influenced more than our diets: they have spawned a diversity of phrases and idioms, many of which have, alas, fallen out of use because of time, fashion, and the inevitable changes in language—which are about as predictable as the weather. We all know the common metaphorical references to cheesy, Swiss cheese, and big cheese, so let’s gnaw on a few of the more obscure hunks of creative cheese-speak, which can be found in some of the most reputable, historically focused word books around: the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the Historical Dictionary of American Slang (HDAS), the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), and Grant Barrett’s Double-Tongued Dictionary (DTD; www.doubletongued.org). Here are some that deserve to be rescued from linguistic extinction:
make the cheese more binding
The HDAS tells us this has two meanings: 1) to make things worse or 2) to make things clearer. It appeared, in the second sense, in a Twilight Zone episode circa 1961: “Well, that makes the cheese a little more binding!”
Spotted by the HDAS in 1955, this word describes a person who has nothing to do with making pastry but is a close relative of pornographers, men’s magazine publishers, and paparazzi. A cheesecaker photographs or publishes cheesecake, or va-va-voomy pics of women.
cheese and crackers!
This euphemistic alteration of Jesus Christ!—which DARE pegs as Northwestern—can also be used after a sneeze, like God bless you. This expression isn’t totally dead, as it was used on a recent episode of 30 Rock; fittingly, the exclamation user was Kenneth, the old-fashioned, mega-rustic, super-wholesome page.
A newish term related to podcasting, cheesepodding involves the downloading of songs that are über-cheesy. A 2006 British article notes,“Cheesepodders are especially vulnerable to soft-rock favourites from the 1970s.”
This was a military term—dating back at least as far as 1839—for something that can cut a lot more than dairy products: a sword.
macaroni and cheese
Used as a slang term, this doesn’t refer to that classic American comfort food but rather to something a lot less wholesome—a two-for-one drug purchase involving cocaine and marijuana.
In nautical slang, this refers to the purser (accountant) of a ship. In the lexicon of insults, it means “a nasty and/or stingy person,” as in this 1999 OED quote: “[Charles] will give me a mark-up on their value. This is instantly suspicious as he is the ultimate nipcheese.”
Finally, let’s support a couple of expressions that may not be as woefully obscure but still aren’t being used to their full potential: cheese it and hard cheese. Originating from a bit of thieves’ slang, the first known use of cheese it was in 1812, and this 1882 use conveys the idea: “Cheese it, mates! ’Ere comes the bobbies!” Appropriately, Futurama’s Bender—a bending robot with a taste for larceny—likes to use this expression after a caper. Victims of such capers have experienced hard cheese, which is hard luck. The first known use of the phrase in 1876 is still true today: “It’s hard cheese for a man to owe everything to his father-in-law.”
Here’s hoping that you will have only soft cheese, dear reader—unless you are a nipcheese, in which case you deserve what you get.
Mark Peters is a language columnist for Good magazine (www.good.is), author of Yada, Yada, D’oh!: 111 Television Words That Made the Leap from the Screen to Society, and creator of the dictionary-blog Wordlustitude (http://wordlust.blogspot.com).
Illustration: Jacqueline Rogers