A Margaret Atwood story taking place in a summer camp features the following passage:

The smell of grime and sweaty feet and wood smoke is getting too potent at close quarters; the sleeping bags are high as cheese.

What does she mean by the simile "high as cheese"? I just don't get it.

  • 4
    Be high is a metaphorical euphemism here for 'smell bad'. She's talking about cheeses like Stilton or Limburger. Commented Jun 2, 2013 at 15:29
  • I think the metaphorical meaning itself is General Reference for ELU, but I'm not sure why the usage evolved. My best guess is that originally, the sense intended in "high" gamey foodstuffs was more of a positive allusion (high = highly-prized, top quality, well-aged), but I can't easily find anything to back that up. Commented Jun 2, 2013 at 18:00
  • Where is the link to the general reference, then?
    – MetaEd
    Commented Jun 3, 2013 at 2:54
  • 2
    "high as cheese" does not appear to be a metaphor or a set-phrase or even a popular expression. books.google.com/ngrams/…
    – Kris
    Commented Jun 3, 2013 at 7:34
  • 1
    My own reading of the second clause is that "high" is referencing "potent" from the first one. In other words, "The sleeping bags smell as highly potent as cheese."
    – Simon
    Commented Jun 3, 2013 at 16:00

2 Answers 2


There are indeed some cheeses with strong smells. Of Limburger, wikipedia remarks:

The cheese is especially known for its pungent odor commonly compared to body odor.

However, some other cheeses which only smell bad if improperly stored get a bad rap unfairly. Of Camembert, wikipedia remarks:

Overripe camembert contains an unpleasant, excessive amount of ammonia, which is produced by the same microorganisms required for ripening.

Wikipedia also notes that some people do not properly adapt to and appreciate Stilton:

Stilton has a smell not to everyone’s taste and has been likened to that of a foot. The Stilton Cheese Makers Association has produced a fragrance called “Eau de Stilton” which “is very different to the very sweet perfumes you smell wafting down the street as someone walks past you”.


Perhaps the word high is an abbreviation for the phrase "stinks to high heavens."

The metaphorical "high" reminds me of the equally metaphorical humming, as in the saying "[The smell was so bad that] it was humming." Yeah, I can appreciate the switch from the sense of smell to the sense of hearing. A smell so bad than it can be heard--now that's got to be bad!

To switch the metaphor, I can recall some smells that were so bad that they "hurt" (enter: the sense of touch)!

Can you think of something that smells so bad you can almost taste it (again, one of the five senses)?

How about a stench so bad you can almost see it? A "stink to high heavens" implies that its height can be seen and therefore measured (e.g., "It's a mile high.)

What about an odor so unpleasant you could almost cut it (the senses of smelling, seeing, and feeling?)

I'm sure you get my long-winded point.

  • You have a point there -- "stinks to high heavens" -- possible.
    – Kris
    Commented Jun 3, 2013 at 7:32

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