Bookshelp header image for page World Wide Words logo

Chalk and cheese

Q From Jeremy Redgrove in Australia: Do you know the origin of the expression chalk and cheese? I heard that it came from two neighbouring counties (I think Devon and Dorset) and their contrasting products of chalk and cheese.

A As different as chalk and cheese is an old proverbial phrase to suggest that two things, superficially alike, are totally different in their qualities. There’s nothing in its history to suggest these two counties had anything to do with it — it sounds like yet another folk etymology to me.

The earliest example — from John Gower’s Confessio Amantis of 1393 — suggests that some shopkeeper was making an illicit profit by adulterating his wares: “And thus ful ofte chalk for cheese he changeth with ful littel cost”. The buyer was surely undiscerning; though some British cheeses are rather chalk-like in appearance, substituting more than a tiny proportion of cheese with chalk wouldn’t fool anybody for very long.

By the sixteenth century, the phrase had become a fixed expression. Hugh Latimer wrote rather sarcastically around 1555: “As though I could not discern cheese from chalk.”

Share this page
Facebook Twitter StumbleUpon Google+ Email

Search World Wide Words

Support World Wide Words!

Donate via PayPal. Select your currency from the list and click Donate.


Buy from Amazon and get me a small commission at no cost to you. Select your preferred site and click Go!

OTHER WAYS TO HELP

Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 3 Sep. 2005

Advice on copyright

The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-cha4.htm
Last modified: 3 September 2005.