The Thinking of Speaking
Issue #13 January / February 2015
Words in Your Mouth
by Erik Zidowecki
January / February 2015 | 

Topping this month's article off with a slice of cheese.

A counter of a cheese market with several types of cheese on display.

So far, we have discussed some basic foods that are common to most cultures: sausage, bread, and milk. This time we are looking at another one, cheese, which has the distinctive feature of being not only a basic food, but also one which we add to other foods.

For example, what do you add to your pasta dish to make it tastier? Some grated cheese, of course. What do you add to your hamburgers and other sandwiches for more flavour? Cheese again! And when you are enjoying a snack in the afternoon of wine and crackers, what tops it all off? Cheese!

While cheese is quite appealing to our palates, the description of how it is made may not be. The Encyclopedia Britannica describes it as:

"When milk sours, it forms both a protein-rich gel, or curd, and a lactose-rich fluid, or whey. Coagulation is often facilitated by adding rennin, an enzyme that acts on the milk's chief protein, casein. The resulting curd is then cut or broken to release most of the whey. Ripening and curing are affected by moisture content, acidity, presence of micro-organisms, and other factors. Products vary according to fat content of the milk, heating or pasteurization, and addition of enzymes or cultures of bacteria, molds, or yeasts."

See? Bacteria in coagulated sour milk. Yum! Just be glad I never went into the details about how sausages are made.

An old fashioned cheese shop showing cheese sliced into smaller sticks.

The etymology for cheese is rather odd. Normally, we have found a clear-cut division of where the words originated from, with the Italic language words coming from Latin and Germanic words coming from Latin or Old English. This time, however, it seems to be a jumble of borrowing and changing the words in a seemingly random order.

The basic English "cheese" is taken from the Old West Germanic "kasjus," which in turn got it from the Latin "caseus." The Latin was probably obtained from the Proto-Indo-European [PIE] "kwat," meaning "to ferment, become sour." You can see how the other West Germanic languages are similar: Dutch (kaas), German (Käse), and Yiddish (kez). The Latin root also provides the Spanish (queso) and Portuguese (queijo).

Now, this is where it gets odd, as I mentioned. The Italian and French dialects do NOT take their words directly from the Latin root, as did the Spanish, but instead seem to take it from a Latin phrase "formaticus caseus" or "shaped cheese." Latin "formaticum" means "shape," so by a meaning transfer from cheese to the definition of it, the French got "formage," which later became "fromage." From this, other Italic languages got their words: Italian (formaggio), Catalan (formatge), and Wallon (froumadje). While these cover most of the Italic languages' words, Romanian's "brânză" is still a mystery.

While the Latin "caseus" may have come from the Proto-Indo-European word meaning "to become sour," there was another PIE word for simply "sour," which was "syr" or "sir," referring to the milk used in the making of the cheese. This was adopted by the Slavic languages as their base: Polish (ser), Russian (сыр [syr]), Serbian (сир [sir]), Slovenian (sir). It seems the Baltic languages also took their words from this base: Latvian (siers), Lithuanian (sūris), Sudovian (sūris), and Prussian (suris).

A plate of cheeses: Raclette, Gouda, and Emmental.

Now, this is largely a guess on my part, but it would appear that the Northern Germanic languages also adopted the "syr/sir" base, with their own adaptation. First, a "t" was added, giving a more palatalised sound. I am not familiar enough with linguistical transformations to explain the attaching of the "o", however. If this is what happened, it would explain the North Germanic words like Danish (ost) and Faeroese (ostur).

Japanese "チーズ" [CHIIZU] comes directly from the English "cheese," as the Korean "치즈" [chijeu] is also likely to be. The Japanese also have another word, "乾酪 [kanraku]," but I am told it's not commonly used in the modern language. The first character, 乾, means 'dry,' 'cured,' and the second character, 酪, means 'dairy product," 'whey.'

Cheese Types

For most of the varieties, the names of cheeses stem from where they are made. Roquefort is from a village in the southwest of France. Stilton and Cheddar are from places in England. Parmesan, Romano, and Gorgonzola are from Italy (Parma, Rome, and Gorgonzola, respectively). Gruyère is a Swiss town, and I assume you know where "Swiss cheese" comes from. Gouda and Edam are towns in Holland. Limburger is from Limburg, a province in northeast Belgium. Muenster is from Münster, a mountain valley in Alsace. Neufchatel, a type of soft, white cheese, is from Neufchâtel, which is a small town in Normandy.


Someone preparing a pot of fondue, which is a traditional cheese dip.

When someone is having his or her picture taken, he or she is often told to say "cheese." Perhaps this is because saying it causes your mouth to form into a smile and your teeth to be exposed. Or perhaps it relates to another slang term, "cheesecake," which is used to describe a sexy young woman, as in "Wow! Look at that cheesecake!" Another cheese reference to young women is "make cheeses." This was when a schoolgirl would spin around rapidly so her petticoats blew out in a circle, then she would drop down quickly, causing the skirt to rest while inflated, resembling a wheel of cheese.

A person in charge is sometimes called "the Big Cheese." When something is very poorly done, we say it is "cheesy." And of course we have a vulgar usage, "cut the cheese," which refers to flatulence.


I am sure it isn't just my conclusion that cheese, however you call it, is delicious. I just hope I haven't soured you on it with the details. As always, let me know your thoughts on the subject. Recipes including cheese are also welcome!

Other pictures related to cheese
From top-left, clockwise: Wheels of cheese in a shop; Cheese sticks in a snack bar in knabberzeug; Wheel of St Pat cheese, sliced open; Wheels of Edam cheese being carried to the cheese market in the traditional manner; Cheese pizza; Cheese cake.

"Cheese" in many languages
Afrikaans: kaas melk
Dutch: kaas
English: cheese
Flemish: kaas
Frisian: tsiis
German: Käse
Luxembourgish: Kéis
Yiddish: קעז [kez]
Swiss German: Chäs
Ancient high german: sur - sour
Danish: ost
Faeroese: ostur
Icelandic: ostur
Norwegian: ost
Swedish: ost
Ancient islandic: 1) surr - sour, ferment, mold. 2) syr - sour milk
Czech: sýr
Polish: ser
Belorussian: сыр [syr]
Russian: сыр [syr]
Ukrainian: сир [sir]
Bulgarian: сирене [sirene] / кашкавал [kaškaval]
Croatian: sir
Macedonian: сирење [sirenje]
Serbian: сир [sir]
Slovenian: sir
Bergamo: formài
Bologna: furmâi
Brescia: fúrmaj
Calabria: casu / formaggiu
Ferrarese: maggiu
Standard Italian: formaggio / cacio
Trieste: formaio
Venezia: formaio
Viestano: furmagg'
Zeneize: formaggio
Asturian: quesu
Catalan: formatge
French: fromage
Galician: queixo
Latin: caseus
Leonese: queixu
Occitan: fromatge
Portuguese: queijo
Romanian: brânză
Romansh: chaschiel
Spanish: queso
Judeo-Spanish: ceso / kezo / queso
Valencian: formage
Wallon: froumadje
Albanian: djathë
Modern Greek: τυρί [tyrí]
Ancient Greek: τυρός [tyros]
Korean: 치즈
Mongolian: бяслаг [bjaslag] ; хурууд [huruud]
Azeri (Latin Script): pendir
Turkish: peynir
Turkmen: peÿnir
Basque: gazta
Japanese: チーズ
Irish: cáis
Scots Gaelic: càise
Breton: fourmaj / fourmaj-laezh / keuz
Welsh: caws
Estonian: juust
Finnish: juusto
Hungarian: sajt
Saami: vuostá
Chechen: nekhcha
Bicolano: keso /queso (from Spanish)
Cebuano: keso / queso (from Spanish)
Chavacano: quezo (from Spanish)
Filipino: keso / quezo / queso / cheese / chis
Hawaiian: waiūpakapa'a
Indonesian: keju (from Portuguese)
Malagasy: fromàzy (from French)
Malay: keju (from Portuguese)
Maori: tiihi
Rapa Nui: pata
Samoan: sisi
Tetun: keiju (from Portuguese)
Tongan: siisi Obviously from English "cheese"
Tagalog: keso (from Spanish)
Arabic: جُبْن
Hebrew: גבינה
Maltese: gobon
Chinese: 奶酪 [năi lào]
Latvian: siers
Lithuanian: sūris
Sudovian: sūris
Prussian: suris
Thai: เนยแข็ง
Hindi: चीज़
Kurdish Kurmanji: penîr
Kurdish Sorani: په نير
Shona: chizi
Swahili: jibini
Quechua (Peruvian): llap'inqa / masara
Quechua (Ecuador): makinchu
Guarani: kesú
Farsi: پنير
Sanskrit: दधिजं
Urdu: پنير
Gujarati: ચીઝ
Konkani: चीज़ी
Punjabi: ਪਨੀਰ
Bengali: পিনর
Dzoratâi: fremâdzo / toma
Ladino: ãiajó
Maasai: eng'orno naibor
Mokshan: michkae
Esperanto: fromaĝo
Interlingua: caseo
Lingua Franca Nova: ceso

Words in Your Mouth - Cheese
Writer: Erik Zidowecki
Petey: Shop in France (splash); Shelves of hard cheese wheels (title); Counter in cheese market; Old fashioned cheese shop; Plate of cheeses; Pot of fondue; Wheels of cheese in a shop; Cheese sticks in a snack bar in knabberzeug; Wheel of St Pat cheese, sliced open; Wheels of Edam cheese being carried to the cheese market in the traditional manner; Cheese pizza; Cheese cake

All images are Copyright - CC BY-SA (Creative Commons Share Alike) by their respective owners, except for Petey, which is Public Domain (PD) or unless otherwise noted.


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