Friday, March 25, 2011

Say What?

Dear Cheese Snob,

Why do they call it "cheese"?

Eddie Etymology


Dear Eddie,

Ooh!  I love questions like this.  Thank you for asking, because it allows us to talk about the history of cheese.

While nobody has been able to pinpoint the exact year cheese was first developed, from archaeological artifacts, we can surmise some form of dairying goes back to about 8,000 BCE, when sheep were first domesticated by nomadic hunters living in the Near East.  (By 5,000 BCE, cows and goats were also domesticated.)

According to my big Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, the word "cheese" is derived from a few languages, but the earliest is Urdu, the language derived from those spoken in the Near East during the Mesolithic age.  In Urdu, chĭz means "thing." 
How did the Urdu word for "thing" become the English word for "result of the controlled spoilage of milk"?  I don't know, I wasn't there, but let's keep going with this etymology thing. 

As the nomadic people of the Near East made their way up to the European continent, which had recently been uncovered from all the ice that had enveloped it, they stopped here and there with their animals.  During the 5th millennium BCE, nomads had gotten domesticated sheep and goats to Italy, southern France and North Africa.  During this time, humans had discovered how to make pottery, allowing greater ease in heating milk and making strainers to drain whey.

The Latin word for cheese is caseus.  While Latin itself came well after the 4,000 BCE years, it is derived from PIE, the Proto-Indo-European language, which was spoken in the region during the time some of these nomads settled and began making cheese.

As time progressed and groups of people moved throughout the European continent, bringing with them their animals, their cheese-making recipes, and their languages, we can see how the word "cheese" developed:
In Middle English, the word for cheese is chese.
In Anglo-Saxon, the word for cheese is cese.
In Late Latin, the word for cheese is casius.

Thus, "cheese."

We can look to other modern languages to see their names for cheese, too, and note the similarities.

Albanian: djathë (I know that looks nothing like the word "cheese," but go here and listen to the word being spoken.  It's a little bit of a stretch, but it does sound similar to "kaas.")
Dutch: kaas
English: cheese
Galician (a Spanish dialect): queixo 
German: Käse
Indonesian: keju
Irish: cáis
Italian: cacio (but keep reading!)
Portuguese: queijo
Spanish: queso
Welsh: caws

So, you see, this is why cheese is called "cheese"!  Aren't you glad you asked?

Okay, you might be thinking, but then what about the way in which the French, the people who seem to love cheese more than any of us in the world*, say "cheese"?  How the heck does "fromage" fit in here?
We can thank the Holy Roman Empire for that one, because they were really good at bringing their language all over the continent. 
Even though we learned the Latin word for "cheese" is caseus, the Romans also used formaticum, likely for when they were referring to aged cheeses.  Formaticum is a declension of formare, "to form." And the "form" is what the cheesemaker puts the curds into so the cheese will solidify into the desired shape.  (Another word for "form" is "mold" but not the blue kind, silly.)
So, from formaticum, we get...
French: fromage
Catalan (a Spanish dialect): formatge
Italian: formaggio

*Some of you might think you can catch me here, but you can't, because I already know the Greeks as a people eat more cheese, per capita, than anyone on the planet.  The last data I could find online was from 1997, but it shows the Greeks eat almost two pounds more cheese than the French in a year.  At least this is what the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service tells me. 


  1. Love it.Thanks for the info.

    p.s. when I obtain millions,I'll buy you a shop of your very own.(I love cheese!)

  2. All that feta...mmmmmmmm

    markus keju

  3. Really fascinating. Wonderful post. I'm especially glad to know about the fromage/formaggio thing. I was always bothered by that outlier.

    Thanks, Cheese Snob Wendy!

  4. I think that this goes beyond cheese snobbery right into cheese nerdishness.

    To make it complete, you should answer the burning question of how much cheese can fit into the TARDIS.

  5. Texas Scott, thank you for commenting! I'd be honored if you obtained millions and bought me a cheese shop. I'd be happy to have a silent partner. Shh! You're supposed to be silent. haha

  6. Markus Keju, thanks for commenting! I love feta, too. Do you have a favorite type of feta?

  7. Chris Hartman, thank you for your kind words! Nice to hear from you! Yeah, I always wondered about formaggio, too. I used to think it was just a different dialect of Italian, because there is more than one type of Italian spoken in Italy -- different dialects and such -- but then when I did the research for this article, I saw that it's another Latin derivative, and it makes perfect sense now. :-)

  8. Chris Hall, my cheese nerdishness developed well before my cheese snobbery, and my garden-variety nerdishness is bigger than them both :-)
    Thank you for noticing and commenting! And your TARDIS reference makes my nerdishness look puny. hahaha. Big hugs to you and the lovely MG.

  9. Very interesting post. Just one comment--neither Galician nor Catalan are Spanish "dialects." They are their own languages with developed grammars and lexicons, and histories of repression under the Spanish fascist dictatorship.

  10. Elizabeth, thank you for clarifying! I should have known better. I'm more of a cheese expert than a language expert, so I rely on the sharp eyes of folks like you to keep me in line. :-)