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As like as chalk and cheese

01:00 Wed 01st May 2002 |

jasona1976 asks: Where does the saying 'like chalk and cheese' come from

The origins of the phrase can be traced back to Wiltshire, where they are quite proud of it.

Farmers in the area around Salisbury Plain were obliged to raise sheep because of the chalky nature of the land. Meanwhile, farmers to the west of town benefited from grassy green pastures where cattle were raised - and cheeses made.

Both sets of farmers came to sell their wares at Salisbury Market but never mixed. They were, or so they liked to say, like chalk and cheese.

Surprisingly, while that historic divide is an ancient one, the phrase doesn't seem to have crossed the Atlantic like so many others. Americans prefer to describe differences as 'like night and day'. Or in other words, the ways in which differences are described in the USA and Britain are... like chalk and cheese.

Cheesed off
To be upset, bitter or miserable at the actions of others. There appear to be no reasons why this state of mind should be associated with cheese, other than it is plainly and uncomfortably clear when it goes 'off'. Similar in origin, perhaps, to being 'browned off'.

To be 'cheesy' is to be cheap, naff and unsubtle. Not surprisingly, this meaning is also derived from mouldy cheese.

Big cheese
Unlike cheesy or cheesed off, this is an example of cheese seen as something generally positive - a person of great import. And sadly for the cheese lobby, this usage deerives not from the foodstuff, but from the Persian or Hindi word chiz, meaning 'thing'.

A word heard and used by Britons in the Empire, chiz migrated to Britain in the phrase 'the real chiz' (the real thing not being, in this case, anything to do with Coca-Cola!). English-speakers thought they were hearing 'the real cheese', which in turn became into 'the big cheese' on arrival in the United States.

The phrase is first recorded in the States in 1890, where lots of things were and are said to be big - not just cheeses but shots, enchiladas and cojones, all meaning much the same thing.

'By a long chalk'...
Another old English saying. To win a race by a long chalk is to win easily, by some distance. This refers to the old schoolroom custom of making merit marks in chalk. Hence - chalk is good, and long chalk better.

And the reverse:
- Is he the best driver
- Not by a long chalk.
He is not close to being the best driver.

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