I’d like to talk to you about cheeses

During the week I edited an article which quoted a company spokesperson talking about the company’s pizza which included an “Edam, mozzarella and Cheddar” topping. Edam and Cheddar are real places (in the Netherlands and England, respectively), and their cheeses originally had an upper case letter (and often still do). Mozzarella is not a place; the name is derived from the Italian mozza, a slice. So do I really have to have that mix of upper- and lower-case letters? Fortunately not. The Macquarie Dictionary styles edam and cheddar (the cheeses) with a lower-case letter, so the magazine will have “edam, mozzarella and cheddar”.

Various food and drink products have “protected designation of origin” status; for example, only sparkling wine from that region of France can be called (upper case) Champagne. There is, in the European Union, at least, no such thing as (lower case) champagne.

Also on cheesy matters, another article referred to “feta cheese”. Do we have to include “cheese”? Isn’t feta always cheese? Google Ngrams shows a healthy usage of “feta cheese”, so I will keep it the way the writer wrote it, but also feta and/or/is/in/for and armis. Feta armis? What on earth is that? Google Translate shows that it’s Latin for “teeming with weapons”; feta by itself is pregnant and armis is arms. Feta cheese is from Greek  phéta, slice. Macquarie lists the Italian-derived fetta first, but Google Ngrams shows that the Greek-derived feta is way ahead in actual usage. (By the way, fettucine is related, linguistically; thanks to Dictionary.com for that factlet.)

Digression 1: when I was growing up in Australia in the 1970s “cheese” was “cheddar”, unless otherwise specified. I can remember only the unfortunately named Coon, cream cheese and cottage cheese.

Digression 2: in Monty Python’s Cheese Shop sketch, John Cleese’s cheese-buying character calls cheddar “the single most popular cheese in the world” after Michael Palin’s cheese shop owner character says that “we don’t get much call for it around these parts”. A later version of the sketch has Cleese asking Palin if he has “Greek feta”, to be told “Ah, not as such”.

A magazine sub-editor’s day is filled with more important things than deciding whether to upper- or lower-case names of cheeses, but not many of them are as interesting, or send me down as many linguistic pathways.

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