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Jewish World Review August 25, 2002 / 27 Menachem-Av, 5763

Editors of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate
Dictionary, Tenth Edition

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Consumer Reports

"Cheesy''; "hold a candle'' | 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.

Dear M.D.:

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 "topnotch.''

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.

Dear Editor:

I was wondering about the origins of the phrase "hold a candle'' as it is used in statements of comparison, such as "Her new album doesn't hold a candle to her previous work.'' How did this phrase come about?

_ C.S., Sacramento, Calif.

Dear C.S.:

The phrase "hold a candle'' derives from the old practice of having a servant or assistant stand with a lighted candle beside someone who was doing work in order to provide light. From this literal use, "hold a candle'' came to be used figuratively to refer to being in a subservient position to someone, and it was often used in observing that a certain person was not "worthy to hold a candle'' to another. The idea of being "worthy'' eventually became so strongly associated with "hold a candle'' that it became possible to say simply that one person did not "hold a candle'' to another, and a further extension of meaning saw the phrase being adopted for comparison of things as well as people.

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08/11/03: "Halcyon days''; Why isn't "sacrilegious'' spelled "sacreligious''?; "red light'' and "green light'' as expression — which came first, the inaction or the signals?
08/04/03: "Votive'' candles; "cosmeticizing"; "potluck''
07/28/03: Why ‘debt’ has a ‘b’ in it; "south moon under''; why "Rx'' is used for prescriptions
07/21/03: "Romance" & "Rome"?; punching & clocks; "conversate"
07/14/03: "Lukewarm''; Where did we get the word "wig'' for a fake head of hair?
07/09/03: Why doesn't "Arkansas'' rhyme with "Kansas''? ; "Catawampus"; "Jimmie Higgins work"
06/30/03: "Foozle"; author who wrote an entire novel without using a certain letter of the alphabet?; "kith and kin"
06/23/03: "On the fritz"; "knuckle down''
06/17/03: How did "lazy Susan'' come to be used for the rotating tray?; woolgathering'' as synonym for "idle daydreaming''; "in harm's way''
06/09/03: "Clotheshorse"; a god named "Ammonia"?
05/29/03: With kid gloves; "receipt'' = "recipe''?; from soup to nuts

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