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Talking Cheese: A Lesson in Etymology

In this blog series, intern Julia will explore 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.

Just as endless varieties of cheeses can be found on shelves around the world, countless phrases, ideas, and assumptions concerning my favorite milk product have existed throughout time. Over the years, as the English language morphs and changes, many have withered away through disuse. (The phrase “like chalk and cheese,” for example, is curd-inspired but far less common today than it was in the sixteenth century at the height of its popularity.)

While we’ll get to cheesey sayings, idioms, and more later in this blog series, let’s start at the root of the matter: the word cheese itself. Where does the word cheese originate and what twists and turns did it take over the centuries to become what it is today?

The word for cheese, luckily for us, has a much clearer origin story than the product it names (for those who don’t know, there’s an ancient rumour about a man from Arabia who kept milk in an animal-stomach pouch while traveling…with a good day’s travel in the sun added to the milk and rennet, the man was surprised to find he had invented a yummy new thing.) The Oxford English Dictionary plots a clear course from the first known use to the present day for the definition of cheese as “a substance used as food, consisting of the curd of milk (coagulated by rennet) separated from the whey and pressed into a solid mass.”

As the English word, the first use the OED found is from before the year 1000. (The example sentence is hardly readable: “Þa scyrte ða flescmete and se ceose and se butere.”) The first phrase that I can hope to understand comes from an Anglo-Danish romance called Havelok the Dane, around 1300:

“Bred an chese, butere and milk.”

If this is what it looks like, then we can only assume that Havelok was romancing some lucky Danish lass by making her a grilled cheese sandwich served with a mug of milk.

Cheese, as well as the Spanish queso and German Kaese and a few other cheese words, all can be traced to the Latin word for cheese, caseus. Going back a little further, the earliest known proto-Indo-European root is *kwat-, a term that refers to the process of making cheese as it means “to ferment, to become sour.”

In other languages, the word for cheese stems less from the actual creation of it and more from the physical formation or shape. According to a blog post on Withershins Confectionary, words like the French fromage or Italian formaggio came about after someone had the idea of putting the curds into a mold, probably for ease of transportation. To describe the new method of cheese preparation, they adopted words derived from the Latin forma, “shape, form, or mold.”

Other cheesy terms have their place in the formation of words that mean “cheese.” Finland, Estonia, Sweden, and some other Northern European countries use the Latin jūs (for example the cheese Juustoleipä or Leipäjuusto), meaning “that which is binding” (in his book, The Science of Cheese, Michael Tunick explains that this probably references whey). In Greece, cheese is called τυρί, a word which resulted in both “tyrosine” (an amino acid found in casein) and “turophile.”

For those who care less about the history of the name and more about making sure they can find cheese no matter where they are, the wonderful Buzzfeed article “The One Word You Need to Survive in Any Country” has got you covered!

Photo Credit: greeblie via Compfight cc

Julia Domenicucci

Julia Domenicucci is an online editorial intern for culture who loves to try new foods almost as much as she loves trying new books. Born just outside of Boston and now attending school in the heart of it, Julia has come to really love the city, its art museums, and all the restaurants in the North End.

9 thoughts on “Talking Cheese: A Lesson in Etymology”

  1. SICA says:

    Probably holiday cheese balls and the occasional commercial brie. Ah, humble beginnings.

    1. Julia Domenicucci says:

      Mmmm commercial brie is so good though…each Christmas my aunt wraps Pillsbury crescent rolls around one and bakes it with preserves. I look forward to it all season!

      1. SICA says:

        Baked bries are super yummy. Why wait for Christmas??

        1. Julia Domenicucci says:

          Haha very true! They just have that association for me now…I can’t get away from it!

  2. Beth Rotto says:

    I grew up in Wisconsin and remember that we would buy Brick cheese. Now I purchase cheese for my co-op, including Widmer’s Brick from Wisconsin.

    1. Julia Domenicucci says:

      I’ve actually never had Brick cheese…or been to Wisconsin! If I ever visit (and I very much plan on it!) Brick cheese is high up on my cheeses-to-try list 🙂

  3. Kevin says:

    I was 8 years old when I had my first cheese’s noteworthy experience.
    My parents and I went to the beautiful region of Aveyron, in the south-west in France.
    It is known for its amazing Roquefort caves among many other things. We went to visit the Roquefort Papillon’s cave and I was not paying a close attention, even worse I was crying all the visit long in the resonant cave, awful.

    Then I became very silent when came the time of tasting after the visit, I ate almost all the cheese pieces on the buffet, my parents were ashamed and also very surprised that I loved this pretty strong cheese which is Roquefort!

    1. Julia Domenicucci says:

      That’s so lovely that one of your first cheese experiences was in the Roquefort caves! Is that still one of your favorite cheeses?