Q From Alexander Pierce: I have used the expression when the cheese gets binding for all those of my 80 years which I can recall. I had thought it referred to challenging or tight situations. When asked a few years ago, I could find no reference to the expression in any source. I am left wondering if the expression was restricted to my maternal roots in Middle Tennessee. Do you have knowledge of such an expression?
A Colloquial expressions from across the water never cease to amuse and surprise me, which is only fair because so many Americans find English expressions quaint. I’ve not come across this one; its story has been intriguing to investigate, but also confusing.
I learned first that the idiom isn’t restricted to Tennessee, nor even to the US, since a version with almost exactly the opposite meaning is known in Canada, though it may be a different expression with a coincidentally similar form. The form and meaning you give turn out to be rather rare in the printed record. One example:
So when the cheese got binding on the Council vote, you, who had been selling so hard for settlement, suddenly had faint heart.
San Antonio Light (Texas), 13 Mar 1977.
My reading of the rather scant evidence and the notes in books on word history is that when the cheese gets binding and make the cheese get binding are known mainly from the US after the Second World War and mean that something is or has been made worse or that events have reached a serious or difficult stage.
Eric Partridge and Paul Beale say in A Dictionary of Catch Phrases that a Canadian version, the exclamation that makes the cheese more binding! was current from 1945–55 and meant “That improves matters; that’s just what we need”. Laurence Urdang and colleagues agree in their Picturesque Expressions, published in 1985, that that form is Canadian and say it means “To improve matters; to strengthen, augment, or reinforce.” However, I haven’t yet unearthed an example in Canadian sources.
Confusingly, the first example of either form on record is from the US but is in the Canadian sense. It’s rather older than you are, Mr Pierce:
The boys, we are told, went more for the outing than to play ball — and we are informed they really had a nice time and got their expenses paid out of their share of the receipts of the game, which, as the boys say, “made the cheese more binding.”
Moberly Evening Democrat (Missouri), 8 Jun. 1920.
How this expression (or these expressions) arose baffled me until I found Laurence Urdang’s book, which adds a comment:
This expression ... refers to the constipating effect that cheese often has on the body; consequently, anything that makes the cheese more binding increases its efficacy.
We must assume that Americans very reasonably regard constipation as trouble rather than good news.