As every student of etymology knows, today, after at least five centuries of European historical linguistics, it is hard and often impossible to discover what has been said about the origin of any word of such well-researched languages as Classical Greek, Latin, French, Spanish, German, or English. Hence my fight for updated analytic etymological dictionaries that survey the entire field and leave little (and sometimes nothing) to glean. They describe the state of the art and invite the reader to pick up where older scholars and amateurs have left off. Fortunately, the goal of retracing the steps of one’s predecessors results in more than amassing footnotes and providing an impressive apparatus. In the process of reading old — and sometimes very old — articles and books we follow the paths of human thought with its victories and defeats. Few things are more interesting than finding out how people, in their wisdom, arrive at and, in their foolishness, reject the truth. If we agree that a drop of water reflects the whole world, we may also agree that a look at the history of the smallest problem may be important and instructive.
The origin of the idiom that’s the cheese is certainly a very small problem. At least as early as 1865 someone who revealed to the readership only his first initials — and whom, on the analogy of Mr. W. H., the famous “begetter” of Shakespeare’s sonnets, we will call Mr. W. S. (for this is how he signed the lettter) — wrote: “A friend of mine who has just returned from India has suggested that it is derived from a word very common in Bengalee [sic] as spoken in Calcutta.” Some wits, he added, say: “That’s the Stilton” or “That’s the Cheshire.” Another letter writer, also in 1865, confirmed W. S.’s opinion and stated that he had been familiar with this usage thirty years earlier. In 1853 still another correspondent remarked in Notes and Queries: “This phrase is only some ten or twelve years old.” His memory takes us to the beginning of the eighteen-forties.
A better etymology of cheese “the real thing” has not been found, though the OED was able to provide 1818 as the date of the first citation. Considering how many words reached Standard English from India, the Hindustani etymology is not improbable. All the serious later dictionaries, unless they say “origin unknown,” accepted it, which does not mean that we can celebrate the result, have a group photo featuring our happy faces, and say cheese, because cheese occurs in other, sometimes more, sometimes less, obscure idioms and metaphors. For example,
- cheese “nonsense”
- get one’s cheese “to attain one’ goal”
- cheese it “stop it; let’s get out of here” (an exclamation of alarm and a warning at the approach of police or other authorities, once—or still?— common among British and American schoolboys)
- make the cheese more binding “snarl the matter”
- hard cheese “too bad”
- big cheese (the latter probably an extension of that’s the cheese)
- cheesy “vulgar, shabby, shoddy”
It is hard to understand why cheese has been victimized to such a degree. Even the moon is said to be made of green (that is, fresh) cheese.
Who knows? Perhaps that’s the cheese had its origin in British regional slang, coincided with the Hindustani noun, and was appropriated by English speakers in India. In bilingual jargons, puns of this type occur all the time. However unproductive such fantasies may be, they explain why some people tried to find other solutions. The following suggestion, borrowed from Vizetelly and De Bakker’s A Desk-Book of Idioms and Idiomatic Phrases in English Speech and Literature (one never knows where etymological hypotheses may turn up, which makes them almost impossible to find) was quoted in 1923 in a note titled “The Cheese, the Whole Cheese, and Nothing but the Cheese”:
“A low courtesy made by whirling the gown or petticoats around until they are inflated like a balloon or resemble a large cheese, then sinking to the ground. To this deep ceremonial courtesy has been traced the use of cheese meaning the correct thing; as ‘quite the cheese’, but it may also be traced to the Hindustani chiz, which means thing.”
Regrettably (especially so because Vizetelly was an experienced lexicographer and editor), the authors did not say who traced cheese in our idiom to a low courtesy and where. Also, it was pointed out at the beginning of the 1865 discussion that the correct pronunciation of the Hindustani word is cheeze, not chiz.
A hopeless derivation traced that’s the cheese to French.
“Some desperate witty fellows by way of giving a comic turn to the phrase c’est une autre chose [‘that’s another matter’] used to translate it ‘that is another cheese’, and after a while these words became household words.”
The cheese ~ chose connection enjoyed some popularity on both sides of the Atlantic, though the nasty wags responsible for the introduction of the phrase in question have not been found. This derivation is reminiscent of the desperate attempt to explain the idiom to sleep like a top by referring top to French taupe “mole” (animal).
Still another bold guesser was “disposed to think that it [the phrase] is a corruption of good Saxon, thus:—The word choice was formerly written chose, from ceosan [I have corrected two typos in the form] = to choose…. When one says ‘that the cheese’, I understand it to mean ‘that’s the proper thing—that’s what I would have chosen…’.” It is true that the infinitives of the verbs belonging to the choose/lose class have doublets with ee in the root, but an etymology connecting cheese “choose” and cheese “milk product” will strike every sober researcher as bizarre, to say the least. The moral is: never be “disposed” to think that you know the origin of a word or an idiom unless you have investigated the problem in depth. Look before you leap into the hot water of etymology.
Even if the facetious idiom that’s the cheese goes back to the usage of Englishmen who resided in India, it remains unclear when under what circumstances it gained currency. Linguists who study borrowings sometimes forget to ask the question about the reception of this or that loanword. I will finish this post with still another quotation:
“The late David Rees, an eminent comedian, well known in London and Dublin, was celebrated for original bon mots on the stage. The above phrase [that’s the cheese] was first introduced into Dublin by him, in a piece called The Red Eye, the scene of which was laid in the Morea. The phrase became very popular, and was used when a person wanted to impress on another that something very important had been said or done in reference to something in hand. I have a clear recollection of having asked Mr. Rees what was the origin of the term, and he replied it arose in consequence of a half-witted boy having eaten a piece of soap and then told his grandmother what a nice piece of cheese he had eaten. ‘It was soap’, cried the old lady. ‘Oh, no’, cried the boy, ‘that was the cheese’. Such is the story as it was told to me” (S. Redmond. Notes and Queries, Series 3, vol. VII, p. 465 for June 10, 1865).
The story of the boy (sometimes even his name—naturally, Paddy—is given) is of course sheer nonsense, regardless of how many people repeated it in both Ireland and England, but the connection or part of it with David Rees may be real. As to the Hindustani origin of the idiom, nothing militates against it. Cheese, along with the word for it, came to Anglo-Saxon England from the Romans. Why then couldn’t the idiom that’s the cheese come to Great Britain from India?
Image credits: (1) Dark Cherry Cheesecake. Photo by jpellgen. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via jpellgen Flickr. (2) Sir Henry Yule, from the Preface to The Book of Ser Marco Polo. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.