a linguistic investigation into ‘cheese and ‘fromage’

The word cheese is from Old English cēse, cȳse, of West-Germanic origin; it is related to its Dutch and German equivalents kaas and Käse respectively.

Those words are ultimately derived from Latin caseus, cheese, which is also the origin of:
– Spanish queso
– Portuguese queijo
– regional Italian cacio
– Romanian: caș.

Based on this Latin word caseus, the English casein, a scientific term coined in the mid-19th century, designates the main protein present in milk and (in coagulated form) in cheese; casein is used in processed foods and in adhesives, paints, and other industrial products.

The French word for cheese, fromage, has its origin in the fact that cheese makers compress curds in moulds: this French word is from Late Latin formaticus (caseus), moulded (cheese), from Latin forma, a mould or form.

This is why the words for brawn are fromage de tête (head cheese) in France and tête fromagée (moulded head) in Québec (cf. also American English headcheese): the meat from the pig’s or calf’s head is cooked and pressed in a pot with jelly.

The form fromage, from formaticus, is due to metathesis, i.e. to a transposition of sounds, and letters, inside the word (cf. English bird, from Old English brid). The Italian and Catalan words are formaggio and formatge. And, in French, a type of cylindrical cheese from the Cantal region is still called fourme, from Latin forma in the sense of cheese mould.




An obsolete phrase, laisser aller le chat au fromage, literally to let the cat go to the cheese, is a euphemism used of a woman who has let a man have sexual intercourse with her.

The idiom entre la poire et le fromage, literally between the pear and the cheese, is used of people chatting at the end of the meal, their cheerfulness resulting from the good food they have eaten.

The phrase en faire tout un fromage, literally to make a whole cheese of it, means to make a big fuss about it. A variant is en faire tout un plat (un plat is a dish).

English big cheese, for an important person, translates in French as gros bonnet or grosse légume, literally big hat or big vegetable (légume is a masculine word, except in this case: un gros légume is a big vegetable, whereas une grosse légume is an important person).

In France as well as in Britain, a traditional girls’ game was faire des fromages, to make cheeses: the girls turned round rapidly, trying to inflate their dresses as much as possible, and then sank on the ground, so that the dress remained inflated; only the head and shoulders surrounded by a ball-like skirt then appeared, intended to represent a cheese. The English essayist and critic Thomas De Quincey (1785-1859) evoked this game in Sketches of Life and Manners; from the Autobiography of an English Opium-Eater, first published in Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine of February 1834:

Madame de Campan mentions, as an amusing incident in her early life, though terrific at the time, and overwhelming to her sense of shame, that not long after her establishment at Versailles, in the service of some one amongst the daughters of Louis XV.—having as yet never seen the King, she was one day suddenly introduced to his particular notice, under the following circumstances:—The time was morning; the young lady was not fifteen; her spirits were as the spirits of a fawn in May; her tour of duty for the day was not come, or was gone; and, finding herself alone in a spacious room, what more reasonable thing could she do than amuse herself with whirling round, according to that fashion known to young ladies both in France and England, and which, in both countries, is called making cheeses, viz., pirouetting until the petticoat is inflated like a balloon, and then sinking into a curtsy. Mademoiselle was very solemnly rising from one of these curtsies, in the centre of her collapsing petticoats, when a slight noise alarmed her. Jealous of intruding eyes, yet not dreading more than a servant at worst, she turned; and, oh heavens! whom should she behold but his most Christian Majesty advancing upon her, with a brilliant suite of gentlemen, young and old, equipped for the chase, who had been all silent spectators of her performances. From the King to the last of the train, all bowed to her, and all laughed without restraint as they passed the abashed amateur of cheese-making.

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