Here are some questions: Is “cheesy” in the eye of the beholder? What does cheesy really mean anyway? Is it a good thing or a bad thing? Does it really matter?
As I pondered the topic, I came to the conclusion that, for most people, cheesy is the kind of thing that we might say, “I know it when I see it.”
For the most part, cheesy (not a description of a casserole with ooey-gooey melted cheddar) is a negative term. For instance, think about Prince William’s wedding suit when he married Kate 10 years ago. Is that outfit cheesy? Remember that for special occasions, he wears that bright red Irish Guards colonel’s uniform with blue banner, gold-embroidered cuffs and a medal here and there. In Westminster Abbey, it was perfect — in a local pub, not so much. Let’s face it: Wearing that uniform anywhere else just seems cheesy.
To me, this means that cheesy has much to do about context. Award-winning pianist Joshua Levy (member of the swing revival band Big Bad Voodoo Daddy) makes that distinction with television and movies. He suggests that sitcoms from the 1950s or 1960s are considered cheesy today “because of their deliberate oversimplifications of life — ones that can seem hypocritical or humorous by modern standards.” Further, he contends that the movie classic Casablanca might be considered cheesy, regardless of its artistry, “as an observation that scenes or quotes from the movie are either unrealistic or have by repetition since become so hackneyed, they would be cheesy if anyone else used them now.”
This all begs the question, “Is ‘On the House’ cheesy?” I suppose for some readers it is — decidedly so. Sometimes, especially if I’m writing about grandkids, for example, it’s impossible not to toss in a “Yay” or a “Yippee” here and there. I just can’t help myself when I’m writing about them; the situation calls for a fun, happy exclamation. What one considers cheesy may simply be another’s personal style.
I also contend that cheesy has to do with venue. In a more formal or traditional outlet — college application, news release, journal article or business report — the tone is appropriately more reserved with no yippees and yays allowed.
The jury seems to be out on how cheesy came to mean tacky, tasteless, campy or kitschy. Several writers contend it has to do with the photographer’s request for his subjects to say “cheese,” a word that bares teeth and draws lips back to force a smile. Hence, the idea that cheesy is forced, faked or overused. One blogger suggests that the term comes from cheesecloth — thin, full of holes, with little substance.
The Online Etymology Dictionary mentions cheesy as a medical term in the late 19th century describing the look of “morbid substances found in decaying flesh.” Or, the site explains, it may have come from the Persian “Urdu chiz” which refers to something big. Supposedly, the term was adopted by the British in 1818, and 40 years later, it had evolved with an ironic connotation of “showy.”
So, is cheesy in the eye of the beholder, or in the eye of the purveyor of cheesiness? Probably both. Does it matter? Maybe.
Is it a hill I want to die on? Not on your life.