There exist hundreds of different varieties of cheese and every one has its own name.
The word “cheese” comes from the Old English “cyse,” from the West Germanic “kasjus,” from the Classical Latin “caseus,” from the Proto-Indo-European root “kwat,” which means “to ferment, become sour.”
The word for cashew in Portuguese (cajú) is almost exactly the same as the word for cashew in Gujarati (kaju), one of the 14 official languages of India. This might seem strange until you consider the fact that cashews are native to northeastern Brazil, where they fall as fruit from a tree indigenously called “acajú.” Admiral Afonso de Albuquerque founded a settlement on the western coast of India in 1510 and the Portuguese ruled the colony of Goa for 451 years.
Is every word just a muddled version of another word, born of human error? Are we all just slightly altered versions of each other?
In 1961, the Indian Census recognized 1,652 different languages in India. That means that at any given moment in 1961, sunbrowned people discussed the weather, the neighbors, the government, dinner plans in 1,652 different languages. The country must have sounded like the ill-fated construction site of the Tower of Babel that God cursed with linguistic chaos.
Such is the world of cheese, like any other world: linguistic chaos. Paneer, limburger, bleu, havarti, feta, manchego, cheddar, American, Muenster, Gruyère, Swiss, pepper jack, Roquefort, asiago, mozzarella, ricotta, raclette, brie, camembert, gorgonzola.
Cheese can be made from cows or sheep or buffalo or goats. It can be hard, soft, spiced. It can be Turkish, Greek, Norwegian, Indian. Really, there’s an infinite amount of possible cheese variations, like there is an infinite amount of possible human variations. But we are not so systematically reproducible. Curdle, process, age, repeat.
The Latin “caseus” is also apparently the father – or some other long-lost relative – of casein, a protein found in cow’s milk.
No one is certain about the origin of cheese, but it was supposedly stumbled upon between 8000 and 3000 BCE. As one story goes, an Arab trader making an arduous trek across the desert on camelback stored milk in a pouch made from an animal’s stomach. The rennet lining the stomach turned the milk to curds and whey while the trader was busy shielding his skin from the sun and his lungs from the sand. Sometimes things happen when you’re not looking.
The Arabic word for cheese is “gibn.”
It would be all too fantastic if photographers’ use of the phrase “Say cheese!” to coax an elusive smile out of crabby children (circa 1930) was somehow etymologically related to the roots and meanings of the word. But I suspect “cheese” was chosen at random for its double-e construction and the smile-like muscle contractions it induces.
“Cheesy,” meaning trite, cheap, or kitschy, is also surprisingly notrelated to what we know as cheese, despite its misleading spelling. British soldiers in India in the early 1800s picked up the Urdu and Hindi word “chiz,” meaning “thing,” to imply “a big thing.” Eventually the meaning morphed into “showy,” and now here we are.
The French word for cheese, “fromage,” comes from the Medieval Latin “formaticum,” from the Latin “forma,” which means “shape, form, mold,” referring to the 14th-century practice of deliberately pressing and molding cheeses with rinds.
Cheese, it seems, like words and language and humans, is rather more complex than it lets on.