Q My wife objects every time I call something “cheesy,” meaning “of poor quality,” because she loves cheese. How did “cheesy” come to have this slang sense, anyway? – M.D., Andover, Mass.

A: Exactly how this sense originated isn’t known. Your wife may be reassured to know, though, that before “cheesy” acquired its negative sense, it was used for a time as a term of praise, more or less synonymous with “top-notch.”

In the 19th century, “cheese” came to be used in a new sense, “something first-rate,” as when a character in an 1847 novel admired paintings displayed in a window as “the cheese as works of art.” This sense is thought to have developed from the Urdu word “chiz,” literally “thing,” said to have been used by the British in India in the phrase “the real chiz,” as in, “These cheroots are the real chiz.”

A related sense of the adjective “cheesy” first appeared in the 1850s. Your wife would certainly appreciate the way the artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti used “cheesy” back in 1853: “The frame for my watercolour has just come in and is spiffy cheesy jammy knobby …” (In case you’re not all that familiar with “jammy” and “nobby,” they mean “wonderful” and “excellent,” respectively.)

But by the late 1800s “cheesy” was more likely to be an insult than a compliment. So what happened? For one thing, students had gotten hold of it and adopted it into their slang vocabulary – it’s listed as “a vague term of depreciation” in a lexicon of student slang of that time. If, as there is some indication, it was occasionally used to mean “striking” or “showy” before that, it’s possible that the “tawdry” (“flashy and tasteless”) connotations of “showy” may have had an effect in turning “cheesy” into a negative word. Or it may just be that the new sense of “cheesy” reflects a certain perception (or misperception, as your wife might say) among the anti-cheese segment of the population that cheese is a common, undistinguished, perhaps even smelly sort of food. There’s no accounting for taste.

The noun phrase “the cheese” continued to be used for something or someone excellent or, with “big,” for someone important, as it still is used today. We don’t have a lot of evidence for the adjective from the beginning of the 20th century, but by the 1930s “cheesy” was undeniably popular, and it was exclusively derogatory – whether used by hoboes to mean “dirty,” by college students to mean “disgusting,” or by people generally to mean “unpleasant.” It may be, in fact, that “cheesy” hit its low point in the ’30s. Its meaning since has been upgraded to merely “cheap,” “inferior,” “tacky” or “corny.” Its brief period as a term of praise, though, is now long forgotten.

This column was prepared by the editors of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition. Readers may send questions to Merriam-Webster’s Wordwatch, P.O. Box 281, 47 Federal St., Springfield, Mass. 01102.

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