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Cheese it!

Q From Dave Olander: Do you have any notion of the meaning and origin of Cheese it? It is from my childhood reading of comic books, and was always used in expressions like “Cheese it! The cops!” I can only guess it is intended to be a PC adaptation of Jesus, used as an expletive, but feel that is unlikely.

A The exclamation cheese!, often written jeez!, is definitely a euphemism for Jesus! But the word in the sense you give isn’t from that source.

Cheese it! means either to be silent (“Will you cheese it! I don’t want to hear!”) or to stop what you are doing, presumably something illegal or inappropriate, or to leave or run away. The expression is now virtually defunct, but it turns up often enough in older writing, as you say, that it’s not entirely unknown even now.

It was originally British slang of the early nineteenth century, but was later taken to the US — it turns up, for example, in a story in O Henry’s The Voice of the City, published in 1908: “The defence of Mr Conover was so prompt and admirable that the conflict was protracted until the onlookers unselfishly gave the warning cry of ‘Cheese it — the cop!’” It’s also in The Inimitable Jeeves by P G Wodehouse, published in 1923: “He had been clearing away the breakfast things, but at the sound of the young master’s voice cheesed it courteously.” The first example occurs in James Hardy Vaux’s A New and Comprehensive Vocabulary of the Flash Language of 1812. Flash at the time referred to men associated with disreputable sports such as boxing and generally to thieves, tramps, and prostitutes, so flash language was the cant or slang of criminals.

Vaux said that cheese it meant to keep quiet or to stop, desist or leave off doing something. What he actually wrote was that it meant the same as stow it, which Vaux explained as “an intimation from a thief to his pall, to desist from what he is about, on the occasion of some alarm.” This is a much older expression that comes from the idea of putting cargo in ship’s storage and shutting the hatches.

Unfortunately, we don’t have such a simple explanation for cheese it. It might have been a version of cease. Jonathon Green, in the Cassell Dictionary of Slang, also points to an old proverb, after cheese comes nothing, which refers to cheese being the last item in a meal. This sounds more than a little literary and stretched, but perhaps the proverb was well enough known then that it made sense just to say “cheese!”

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 25 Aug. 2007

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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.

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Last modified: 25 August 2007.