As I cooked cheesesteaks for dinner, I found myself wondering why the word “cheesy” has a negative connotation. Our family loves cheese, and making a meal “cheesy” is a good thing around here. (I’m not sure how many pounds we go through in a week, but it seems I’m constantly buying cheese – string cheese, cheddar and cojack for sandwiches, block cheese for snacks, and shredded cheese for salads, tacos, scrambled eggs, and casseroles.) Yet while the first definition for cheesy is “containing or resembling cheese,” the more commonly used second definition is “of poor quality; shoddy.”
To a cheese connoisseur, I suppose my cheese might be considered “of poor quality,” since I generally buy prepackaged store brand cheese, reserving purchases of more expensive cheeses from the deli for holidays. Even the jarred Alfredo sauce that my family loves is probably only a distant cousin of the sauce by that name produced by a professional chef.
Still, that wouldn’t explain why something as wonderful as cheese – even the inexpensive cojack we eat so much of – would come to be associated with “shoddy.” I figured it couldn’t have been a cheese lover who came up with that. So I checked out the etymology – dictionary.com is great for looking these up – and found out that it had no relation to the word cheese at all.
According to the Online Etymology Dictionary (one of several references included at dictionary.com), by 1818 the British in India had borrowed the Urdu word chiz (“a thing”) and used cheesy to mean “a big thing.” By 1858, cheesy had evolved a slang meaning of “showy,” which led to the modern, ironic sense (“cheap, inferior”) by 1898.
So there you have it. Cheese is not cheesy – except in a good, mouth-watering way.