We say that something is cheesy in English to mean that it is inferior, cheap or possibly embarrassing due to its lack of quality. (Obviously, this does not apply to its other definition, i.e. a large amount of cheese on our food, as above!)
He bought some cheesy (tacky) souvenirs from the local shop.
We didn’t like the show, the actors were really cheesy. (phoney)
But this was not always the case. In the 1850s, when the word was first used, if something was cheesy it was considered to be of top quality. Cheesy as the idea of something pleasant and important crossed the Atlantic where the concept of cheese meant celebrity or big money and gave us the expression ” the big cheese” to signify a person of importance. Over time, the word cheesy began to be used ironically, and this is the meaning that we have been left with today.
Small potatoes are the opposite of important, something, not very imposing and insignificant. First recorded in the 19th century, it came from the idea of small potatoes not being worth the bother if they were being picked or sold.
Chickenfeed, another U.S. expression, is along the same lines. Chickens were readily available in the 18th and 19th centuries whereas cattle and horses were more expensive and needed a bigger supply of food.
Chickens, being lower down the pecking order (see what I did just there?) were fed on leftovers and grain, hence chickenfeed coming to mean something trivial, often a small amount of money.
I’m not interested in their money – it’s small potatoes/chickenfeed.
If you suffer from sour grapes, it means you speak badly of something you cannot have. This is an expression from one of Aesop’s Fables.
Aesop was a slave who lived in Greece around 600 B.C.E. He was a storyteller who told fables – short stories with a moral at the end. These fables were not recorded until 300 years after his death, so Aesop’s Fables, the collection of his stories, may or may not be all his own work, as the stories have been recorded, translated and rewritten over hundreds of years.
However, one of the best-known tales is “The Fox and The Grapes”, in which a fox is unable to reach a juicy bunch of grapes. Disappointed by failure, she salvages her pride by saying that they must have been sour.
I’m sure you can all think of someone who disparages something they once wanted. This is a case of sour grapes.
This saying refers to a carefree time with no worries, generally when we are young, and it was first recorded in William Shakespeare’s play Anthony and Cleopatra.
Cleopatra calls her salad days the time when she was “green in judgement“, in other words, she was naive with not much knowledge of the world.
For a time this was also what people meant when they referred to salad days but the meaning has now shifted to mean the prime of youth, a time of happiness and optimism.
He did lots of crazy things in his salad days, but now he’s turned into a typical family man.
Thanks for reading the post! Can you think of any more foodstuffs used in English expressions? Write them in the comments below!
3 replies on “Why do we say cheesy?”
“Salad days” has always struck me as a very strange image, somehow bringing together a person and a plate of lettuce.
Yes, I agree! My theory is that Shakespeare had in mind the green ingredients of a salad, to illustrate that someone was green and inexperienced. However, given the importance of healthy eating these days, maybe salad days should define “a period of time when more lettuce than usual is consumed.” Think it could catch on as an alternative meaning?! 🤣
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That’s what the larger part my mind made of it, although the smaller part was in there screaming, «That doesn’t make any sense at all.»
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