In my new column for Visual Thesaurus, “Phood for Thought,” I take a closer look at a subject I originally explored in a blog post about chik’n and wyngz: namely, where do all those weird food spellings come from and what do they mean?
Full access is restricted to subscribers; here’s a taste, so to speak.
Let’s start with Cheez-It, one of the oldest brands on the menu. When the square, cheese-flavored crackers were introduced in 1921, “Cheese it—the cops!” was a popular slang expression. According to Michael Quinion, who monitors English words and idioms for his World Wide Words website, “cheese it”—meaning either “stop it” or “run away”—originated among criminals in early-19th-century Britain and surfaced about a hundred years later in the United States. The “cheese” in “cheese it” may have been a variation of “cease.” O. Henry used the expression in “The Easter of the Soul,” a short story published in 1908: “The defense of Mr. Conover was so prompt and admirable that the conflict was protracted until the onlookers unselfishly gave the warning cry of ‘Cheese it — the cop!’”
And the Z in Cheez-It? The historical record is silent about the namers’ intentions, but we do know that altered commercial spellings have been around for a long time. They were especially popular in the 1920s. Louise Pound, the founding editor of American Speech, wrote in 1925, in the journal’s first issue, about a number of “simplified or novel spellings” then popular as brand names, including Shur-On eyeglasses, Holsum bread, and Kolor Bak hair dye. A phonetic spelling like “cheez” can give a brand name the advantage of distinctiveness and memorability. What it can’t do is confer legal protection: trademark law is based on a word’s sound, not its spelling. “Cheez is cheese, no matter how you spell it,” says trademark lawyer Jessica Stone Levy, who writes the trademark blog Beauty Marks.