Why do we call frivolous, lame or naff things cheesy?

  • 2
    I'm wondering why we call "naff" things, well, naff things. ;-) – Jürgen A. Erhard Apr 13 '11 at 14:29
  • See here, I didn't realise that! – BenCr Apr 13 '11 at 14:31
  • Interesting that etymonline seems to be the only source for that origin. – Jürgen A. Erhard Apr 13 '11 at 14:39
  • 1
    The OED lists both these meanings of "naff", but says of each that it is probably unrelated to the other. It doesn't give any reason for this, though. – Colin Fine Apr 13 '11 at 16:16

Interestingly enough, Etymonline suggests that it has nothing to do with cheese:

"cheap, inferior," 1896, from Urdu chiz "a thing," from Persian chiz, from O.Pers. *ciš-ciy "something," from PIE pronomial stem *kwo- (see who). Picked up by British in India by 1818 and used in the sense of "a big thing" (especially in the phrase the real chiz). By 1858, cheesy had evolved a slang meaning of "showy," which led to the modern, ironic sense.

Cheese, on the other hand, ultimately comes from Latin (caseus), taking a detour via West Germanic (compare German Käse, Dutch kaas).

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  • Aha! Is this also the origin of calling someone a "big cheese"? I wonder if it's related to Molesworth's "chiz". – Tom Anderson Apr 13 '11 at 17:04
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    @Tom: Moleworth's chiz is from chizzer "swindler" which is from chizz or chizzle which are slang forms of chisel "cheat, defraud". – Gareth Rees Aug 16 '12 at 18:35

Another etymology dictionary has a different take:

cheesy (adj.) Meaning "cheap, inferior" is attested from 1896, perhaps originally U.S. student slang, along with cheese (n.) "an ignorant, stupid person." In late 19c. British slang, cheesy was "fine, showy" (1858), probably from cheese (n.2) and some suggest the modern derogatory use is an "ironic reversal" of this. The word was in common use in medical writing in the late 19c. to describe morbid substances found in tubers, decaying flesh, etc.

Upon second look, this etymology also comes from Etymonline.com, the same source as the other answer posted. So it appears that this website has updated their information on this topic since 2011. That is puzzling because they have entirely dropped the stuff about "Urdu chiz", which is just a bit suspicious. Are they just making this stuff up?

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  • FYI: Urdu 'cheez' is nearly equal to 'thing'. But it can not be used as a work/task e.g. 'I am doing my thing' in English. But is used even to refer someone e.g. 'what is this thing (person)' – LifeH2O Jan 15 '14 at 0:19
  • The Etymonline editor didn't make up the part about the meaning of Urdu and Persian chiz / چیز (which is LifeH2O's point, I think). About the etymology, I doubt he made it up, but I wish there were references to follow. – LarsH Jan 25 '17 at 11:59

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