Cheese, the food of the gods

Cheese comes in many varieties and there are a range of flavours and aromas associated with it. It has long been part of our diets, as attested to in texts such as by Hippocrates from around 400 BC. But of course, Hippocrates spoke Greek and his writing was in Greek, which means that he used the word τύρον [tyron]. What of the English word; cheese?

What a small but smooth word this is. It flows beautifully off the tongue and onto the plate. Or perhaps indeed onto the palate!

And it too is not a modern invention. This word has been with us for a very long time. Let’s take a look at the Peterborough Chronicle from around 1160.

Þa was corn dære, & flec & cæse & butere.

(There was corn there, and meat and cheese and butter.)

At that time, in the period of our language known as Middle English, ‘cheese’ was cæse, as you can see above, but also chese, cyse, chise. There are references to it in many places, in diverse texts and it appears to have been quite popular. The only thing we cannot be sure of is the flavour!

However, the word did not arrive in English fully formed during the twelfth century. Its history goes back further than that, and can be found in Old English texts.

 

In West Saxon it was generally cyse, while in Anglian it was cese, both meaning cheese. Here is an example from the Anglo Saxon version of Medicina de Quadrupedis by Sextus Placitus, a fourth century work that was rendered into English during the ninth century. It was printed in Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of early England during the eighteenth century.

 

Níwe gáte cýse

(new goat’s cheese)

 

This seems very recognisable. Little has changed in the intervening centuries, you might think, except the numbers of varieties!

 

But can we trace its history any further? The Old English words came from a West Germanic source; *kasjus, which itself came from the Latin word caseus, which of course also meant “cheese”. This word has spread around the continent, with Käse in German, kaas in Dutch, queso in Spanish, caws in Welsh and also càise in Scottish Gaelic, to mention just a few.

On theory suggests that it might derive from a Proto-Indo-European root *kwat, meaning “ferment, become sour”., although there seems to be some dispute about that. Whatever the truth of this theory, in my humble opinion this is where the ancient Greeks made a huge mistake. Forget nectar, forget ambrosia. The food of the gods is cheese.

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