Sunday, June 18, 2006

the world in cheese

I have a minor obsession with languages, and have been lucky enough to find friends who are also obsessed. For me, it's fun to find connections between different countries' words -- I can sit for hours and find cognates between Persian and Arabic (and have done just that on many many many occasions!). I get thrilled when I discover new ones (some examples: the 'an orange'/'naranja'/'narenji' connection, and the 'aubergine'/'berenjena'/'badenjan'/'bitingan' one). There are even a couple that are so cool and run so deep that they deem their own (eventual) post.

So you can imagine my excitement when, at work a few weeks back, the lunchtime conversation turned to the words for bread and cheese in every language. Between the 5 of us, we were able to come up with English (doy), French, Spanish, Italian, German, Swedish, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Tagalog, Persian, Hebrew, Arabic, Hindi. Interrogating some coworkers (is it weird to randomly go up to someone and ask them how they say cheese in their native language? probably. oh well), we added Turkish, Armenian, Flemish, and Dutch to the list. That's 18 languages!

But this was just the beginning of the fun. We came back to our desks, and my friend Brian made a stop at mine. Apparently 18 languages was not enough for him. He started rattling off many others (basically all the European languages), and I diligently scoured google for the cheese word in each one. Meanwhile, Brian was drawing a map, freehand, of Europe -- a glorious cheesemap! It was really impressive -- kind of a genius document. There might truly be world peace if we could just put away our differences, and focus on our amazing common ground -- cheese (sorry lactards).

Some things we learned:
  • Much of Mediterranean Europe's cheese word is in the 'queso' vein (like 'cheese' itself). Makes sense, the Latin for cheese is 'caseus'. BUT -- what happened to Italy and France ('formaggio' and 'fromage', respectively)? Turns out, this has to do with 'shape, form, mold' -- perhaps because these countries were actually making cheeses in a mold, as opposed to just curds in a bag?
  • Hebrew is 'gvina', Arabic is 'gibn'. Stands to reason they would be related. (Also, come on people! You guys have the same word for cheese -- can't we all just get along?) BUT -- the Gaelic word is 'gobin'. Wha?? Why would they be related?
Anyway, here is the cheese map, complete with coffee stain. Study it well and meditate on world peace through cheese.

Also: Here's a comprehensive list of cheeses the world over, and a fun etymology page.


  1. CHEESE ROCKS! How fun you all have whilst working...that's great! Love reading these posts, you script so well...when's the book coming out? ;-)

  2. i said it once and i'll say it and bbell individually and combined made me swoon. extensive geographical and etymological ardor in the name of

  3. ps, the hebrew word for cheese is dirty.

  4. tannaz...
    i love the cheese map!!!
    i don't even know how i came across your sight - i think i googled "sottocenere", anyway..if you are so inclined, my blog is
    hope you don't mind, but i must make mention of your world-in-cheese post..brilliant!
    take care, naomi (another eastide l.a.'er)

  5. I'm guessing that the Gaelic word probably isn't related to the Semitic word - it's just a coincidence. That fun etymology page is not always correct; use with caution.

  6. It's 'sir' in Serbo-Croatian, pronounced literally (seerr), not like the English word sir.

  7. A good story

    GK Chesterton: “The poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.”

    Voila: This book is a poetic view of 30 of the best loved French cheeses with an additional two odes to cheese. Recipes, wine pairing, three short stories and an educational section complete the book.

    From a hectic life in New York City to the peace and glories of the French countryside lead me to be the co-founder of Ten years later with the words of Pierre Androuet hammering on my brain:

    “Cheese is the soul of the soil. It is the purest and most romantic link between humans and the earth.”

    I took pen and paper; many reams later with the midnight oil burning Tasting to Eternity was born and self published.

    I believe cheese and wine lovers should be told about this publication.


  8. The Irish word for cheese is 'Cais'. The a (has an accent, referred to as fada) and the word Cais may be pronounced phoenetically in English as 'cawish'. One could speculate that it is derived from the latin word 'caseus' and is similar to the German 'kaese' or Dutch 'Kaas' or Spanish 'Quesco'
    Your web page referred to the Irish word for cheese being 'gobin' which is similar to the phoenetic pronounciation of the the arabic word for cheese, 'gibn'. Im not aware of this word 'gobin' for cheese; however, there is an Irish farmahouse cheese known as 'Gubbeen'.