Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Feelin' Cheesy

We have a dictionary in almost every room in our house because I never know when the need or urge to look up a definition will strike. You would think that having dictionaries this accessible would make me more articulate or at least a great Scrabble player, but unfortunately is does nothing but feed my curiosity and make me a bit odd.

I'm especially intrigued by the birth and evolution of words. When I read about a word evolving and taking on a new meaning, my ears perk up. This was the case this weekend as I read Eric LeMay's book Immortal Milk: Adventures in Cheese. In that book, Mr. LeMay ponders the following question:
Why has cheese come to signify all that's sappy, campy, tacky, corny, kitschy, vulgar, lame, stupid, fake, overdone, cliche ridden, and sentimental in American culture? What's wrong with "corny" or "soupy"? Why did cheese have to be sacrificed on the food-as-adjective altar? It's not fair.

Mr. LeMay spends an entire chapter exploring these questions, and I was riveted. Mr. LeMay cited that the first printed occurrence of "cheese" used in the above connotation occurred in a screenplay for a 1943 comedy titled Hail the Conquering Hero in the following line: "Of all the cheezy songs I ever heard that one certainly takes the crackers." Mr. LeMay then shares some historical background:

The answer might lie not in what cheese is, but in what cheese was. In 1943, the year Americans started saying "cheesy," World War II was on. Food was rationed, and the cheese that people were eating wasn't artisanal and organic. I t was industry. It was Kraft. In 1943, you could trade one rationing coupon for two boxes of Kraft macaroni and Cheese Diner, and Americans at home at about 80 million boxes that included orangey powder labeled "cheese.

American soldiers had it worse. The K-ration that they ate for lunch contained biscuits, sugar, salt tablets, cigarettes, gun, and a "cheese product" that could patch holes in airplanes.
Mr. LeMay goes on to share an account of a crew who patched bullet holes in their B-29 during a WWII bombing raid, and then he gives readers his explanation of how "cheesy" possibly evolved to mean something trite and schmaltzy:

Cheese wasn't cheese as we now know it when Americans started saying "cheesy." It was a fake, a substitute, not only for meat but for metal. Is it any wonder that it became slang for other fakes, other substitutes? You might call cheesiness an "emotion product." The label on it says "happiness" or "love," but when you experience it, it feels powdery, rubbery, not quite real.

I don't know if he's right, but I find all of this intriguing. And it makes me crave a grilled cheese sandwich.

oddly yours,


1 comment:

High Plains Drifters said...

I sort of understand how theoretical physicists use math to try to understand string theory. I get how materials are strength-tested in laboratories so that engineers can pick the right piece to hold something together. It makes sense to me how a doctor can examine a body looking for signs that will help him diagnose a problem, or how laboratories isolate compounds to create new medicines. I even get the Large Hadron Collider.

But for the life of me I don't get how etymological detectives do their work. How does someone find the first use of a word? Or find a similar word used in a different culture in an earlier time that might have led to the current usage? Makes my head hurt.