Swiss cheese isn’t Swiss

(And Swiss steak isn’t either, but that’s a topic for another posting.)

(#1) A wedge of American Swiss

But then the expression Swiss cheese is ambiguous. NOAD recognizes this, but not in the way you were probably expecting:

noun Swiss cheese: [a] cheese of a style originating in Switzerland, typically containing large holes. [b] used figuratively to refer to something that is full of holes, gaps, or defects: the team has Swiss cheese for a defense.

I’ll get to sense b in a moment. In a, we have a non-predicating / non-predicational composite, of the sort I’ll call relational: your ordinary Swiss cheese, as in #1, isn’t Swiss — in this sense of Swiss cheese, Swiss isn’t predicated of cheese, doesn’t attribute Swissness to some cheese — but is understood  as having a less intimate relationship to Switzerland, namely involving a particular style of cheese-making coming from that country.

Of course there’s also a predicational composite Swiss cheese ‘cheese that is Swiss’, that is, cheese from Switzerland. But dictionaries don’t generally list complex expressions whose meaning is entirely compositional, according to default principles (like predicational interpretations for Adj + N composites). A good English dictionary won’t list big house ‘house that is big’ — that would be ridiculous — but will list big house, slang for ‘prison’.

Sense a is metonymical; it arises from a real-word association between Switzerland and a particular kind of cheese. Sense b, on the other hand, is metaphorical; it arises from a similarity between Swiss cheese and things characterized by holes, gaps, or defects — perhaps most vividly in brain damage, whether the holes are themselves literal or figurative.

For me, the dramatic high point of Swiss cheese-b came in an exchange in an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (S2 E21 “Scourge”, 2001); from a quotes site:

00:35:33 How advanced [is the syphilis]?
00:35:34 Tertiary stage. The MRI shows cortical degeneration and atrophy.
00:35:38 Meaning what? His brain is Swiss cheese.
00:35:41 The syphilis has eaten away at his cerebral cortex.
00:35:43 The moral center of his brain is long gone. We’ve got to tell his wife.

The unfortunate character literally has empty spaces in his brain, eaten away by tertiary syphilis.

In other quotes about Swiss-cheese brains, the damage is more figurative. From GoodReads, a quote from John Green, The Fault in Our Stars:

“I’ll write you an epilogue, I will, I will. Better than any shit that drunk could write. His brain is Swiss cheese. He doesn’t even remember writing the book. I can write ten times the story that guy can. There will be blood and guts and sacrifice. An Imperial Affliction meets The Price of Dawn. You’ll love it.”

And from MedHelp’s Addiction: Social Community on 11/22/12, an opioid addict writing under the heading “My brain is swiss cheese”:

Well I am around 3 1/2 months sober. Methadone maintenance and heroin was what I used. So essentially my brain is swiss cheese. I can barely hold a conversation that last longer than 1 minute. After that is becomes just plain awful. Any suggestions?

(Note the not uncommon lowercasing in swiss cheese, indicating a genericization of the name, now disconnected from Switzerland. As has also happened, for many writers, with some or all of the cheese names parmesan, camembert, cheddar, brie, and gouda, all of which are derived from place names.)

More detail on Swiss cheese from Wikipedia:

This article is about a kind of cheese produced primarily in Canada and the United States. For cheeses produced in Switzerland, see Cheeses of Switzerland.

Swiss cheese is a generic name in North America for several related varieties of cheese, mainly of North American manufacture, which resemble Emmental cheese, a yellow, medium-hard cheese that originated in the area around Emmental, in Switzerland. Some types of Swiss cheese have a distinctive appearance, as the blocks of the cheese are riddled with holes known as “eyes”. Swiss cheese without eyes is known as “blind”. (The term is applied to cheeses of this style made outside Switzerland, such as Jarlsberg cheese, which originates in Norway).

Three types of bacteria are used in the production of Emmental cheese: Streptococcus salivarius subspecies thermophilus, Lactobacillus (Lactobacillus helveticusor Lactobacillus delbrueckii subspecies bulgaricus), and Propionibacterium (Propionibacterium freudenreichii subspecies shermani). In a late stage of cheese production, the propionibacteria consume the lactic acid excreted by the other bacteria and release acetate, propionic acid, and carbon dioxide gas. The carbon dioxide slowly forms the bubbles that develop the “eyes”. The acetate and propionic acid give Swiss its nutty and sweet flavor. A hypothesis proposed by Swiss researchers in 2015 notes that particulate matter may also play a role in the holes’ development and that modern sanitation eliminated debris such as hay dust in the milk played a role in reduced hole size in Swiss cheeses, or even “blind cheese”. Historically, the holes were seen as a sign of imperfection and cheese makers originally tried to avoid them by pressing during production. In modern times, the holes have become an identifier of the cheese.

In general, the larger the eyes in a Swiss cheese, the more pronounced its flavor because a longer fermentation period gives the bacteria more time to act. This poses a problem, however, because cheese with large eyes does not slice well and comes apart in mechanical slicers. As a result, industry regulators have limited the eye size by which Swiss cheese receives the Grade A stamp.

… Baby Swiss and Lacy Swiss are two varieties of American Swiss cheeses. Both have small holes and a mild flavor. Baby Swiss is made from whole milk, and Lacy Swiss is made from low fat milk. Baby Swiss was developed in the mid-1960s outside of Charm, Ohio, by the Guggisberg Cheese Company, owned by Alfred Guggisberg.

On Lac(e)y Swiss, from the site:


Lacy Swiss (also spelt Lacey Swiss) is an American Swiss cheese commonly mistaken for Baby Swiss. Both these cheeses are characterized by small, widespread open holes but their tastes significantly differ from each other. Lacy Swiss is made from low fat cow’s milk and when sliced the white to ivory cheese is supposed to look like thin sheets of lace.

In contrast to Swiss cheese, Lacy Swiss is mild in flavour with nutty undertones, more on the lines of Monterey Jack and Provolone. It is also softer, thus melting well in Swiss dishes such as quiche. Lacy Swiss is low calorie, less salty and a healthy alternative to classic Swiss cheese. Pair it with deli sandwiches, hamburgers, sandwiches or a lettuce wrap and you have a winner on hands!

My breakfast this morning was a sliced turkey and lacy Swiss sandwich on black bread, with cherry tomatoes. A return to real food after yesterday’s medical procedure and Spartan rigors (a muscle biopsy, preceded by 18 hours of no food or liquid of any kind).

Swiss cheese, American cheese. Swiss cheese is certainly cheese; the composite Swiss cheese is subsective. But since Swiss cheese isn’t Swiss, the composite is non-predicational.

Now look at American cheese. Technically — in the laws governing the use of trade names — American cheese is not cheese, so the composite American cheese is (at least technically) non-subsective; but American cheese is certainly American, so the composite is predicational.

(Note: in ordinary usage for most American speakers, American cheese certainly is cheese; in fact, for many Americans, American cheese is the prototypical cheese.)

Meanwhile, you ask, what do we call the stuff if not cheese? The legally correct answer is process(ed) cheese. So this composite is strikingly non-subsective: process(ed) cheese is not cheese, in the same way that a dwarf planet (as Pluto is now labeled) is not — at least in official astronomical usage —  a planet. (Alternatives to process(ed) cheese are process(ed) cheese food and process(ed) cheese food product.)

(NOAD manages to skirt the issue by using processed cheese in its definition: “noun American cheese: a type of mild-flavored semisoft processed cheese.”)

On American cheese from Wikipedia:


American cheese is a type of processed cheese [note: processed cheese again]. It can be orange, yellow, or white in color, is mild, salty, and faintly sweet in flavor, has a medium-firm consistency, and has a very low melting point.

Very early in its history, American cheese was only white in color — as it was made from a blend of cheeses (most often including cheddar cheese) which were originally only white. However, the later versions are often a yellow hue due to the addition of annatto, a sweet and nutty seasoning added to cheddar and to Colby so that by the late 1800s American cheese was often simply called “yellow cheese”.

Today’s American cheese is, by law, required to be manufactured from at least two types of cheese. Because its manufacturing process differs from “unprocessed”/raw/natural cheeses, American cheese cannot be legally sold under the name (authentic) “cheese” in the US. Instead, federal (and even some state) laws mandate that it be labeled as “processed cheese” if simply made from combining more than one cheese, or “cheese food” if dairy ingredients such as cream, milk, skim milk, buttermilk, cheese whey, or albumin from cheese whey are added. As a result, sometimes even the word “cheese” is absent altogether from the product’s labeling in favor of, e.g., “American slices” or “American singles”. In the United Kingdom [also in Canada], packs of individually wrapped slices are labeled as “singles”, although they are commonly referred to as “cheese slices”.

There is, of course, American cheese with the composite understood as predicational: Colby, (Monterey) Jack, Liederkrantz.

Swiss cheese on the road. Since Swiss cheese is a relational rather than predicational composite, it’s available as a conventionalized nominal that can occur with a modifying Adj predicating nationality or regionality. And so it is. Within the US:

(#4) Pa. Dutch Swiss (cow) cheese from the Swiss Villa Co. in Wrightsville PA (Wrightsville is in Pa. Dutch country, on the Susquehanna River in York Co., between Lancaster and York)

And in Canada:

(#5) Canadian Swiss cheese / fromage Suisse Canadien from Paradise Island Foods

And, finally, abroad, with Swiss cheese pretty clearly referring to something like ‘Swiss-style cheese’, not necessarily of North American origin. From Wikipedia:

(#6) Maasdam(m)er Dutch Swiss cheese wheel from the Spec’s online store

Maasdam cheese is a Swiss-style Dutch cheese. Made from cow’s milk, it is aged for at least 4 weeks. It ripens faster than other Dutch cheeses. Maasdam has internal holes from the ripening process, and a smooth, yellow rind. Sometimes, it is waxed like Gouda. The cheese was created to compete with the popular Swiss Emmental by being less expensive and quicker to produce. In the process of making a cheese with the same general components as Swiss cheeses, the Dutch ended up with a cheese that is nutty and sweet, but softer than Emmental due to a higher moisture content.

The style was introduced in 1984 by the Baars company as the trademarked Leerdammer cheese, though it is now made by other Dutch companies under the name Maasdammer. It is called after the village of Maasdam in the province of Zuid-Holland.

Appendix on semantics. Notes on concepts and symbolism.

1. X’ stands for the denotation of the expression X

2. conceptual relationships: subsumption by (subset of) ⊂ ‘is subsumed by, is a subset of, is a’; association (metonymy) ∾ ‘is associated with / related to’; similarity (metaphor) ~ ‘is similar to, resembles’

3. lexical relationships:

𝒜(N) stands for the Adj predicating N-ness (Californian ‘of or belonging to California’: 𝒜(California) = Californian and 𝒜-1(Californian) = California)

𝒩(Adj) stands for the N evoked by an Adj (canine ‘relating to dogs’: 𝒩(canine) = dog and 𝒩-1(dog) = canine)

4. properties of composites (with default properties in boldface):

4a1. in subsective composites, (Mod N)’ ⊂ N’; subsectivity is the default

California wine (California wine is wine), French wine (French wine is wine)

4a2. non-subsective composites: in resembloid composites, (Mod N)’ ~ N’

California lilac (a California lilac (plant) is similar to a lilac (plant), Russian olive (a Russian olive (plant) is similar to an olive (plant))

4b1. in predicational composites,

(Mod N)’ ⊂ Mod’ if Mod is an Adj: French wine (French wine is French); Adj + N nominals are largely predicational

(Mod N)’ ⊂ 𝒜(Mod)’ if Mod is a N: California wine (California wine is Californian)

4b2. non-predicational composites: in relational composites,

(Mod N)’ ∾ Mod’ if Mod is a N: California lilac (a Calfornia lilac is associated with California); N + N compounds are largely relational

(Mod N)’ ∾ 𝒩(Mod)’ if Mod is an Adj: canine therapist (a canine therapist is associated with dogs (specifically, by treating them))

To recall: Swiss cheese is subsective but non-predicational (instead, it’s relational). American cheese is non-subsective in technical usage (instead, it’s resembloid), subsective in ordinary language; and it’s predicational.

Leave a Reply