I’m from Wisconsin, and I like cheese. And no, this is not a blog post about tautologies.
Don’t you think it’s funny? The Italian and French words for cheese are very similar to each other—formaggio and fromage. Yet they’re nothing like other Romance language words for cheese—Spanish queso and Portuguese queijo—or for that matter, our own cheese or the German Käse. All of those in the last sentence have a common root. If you’re not an etymology buff, you might have to squint to see it, but it’s there.
It’s easy to imagine that early cheese, discovered by accident (and weren’t they brave souls who first ate it?), was soft, something like a current pot cheese, cottage cheese, or drained yogurt cheese. But the Romans needed to send provisions along with their soldiers as they fanned out to occupy most of Europe and create an empire. They came up with a technique of pressing soft cheese in wooden forms to squeeze the liquid out and give it a long shelf life. This hard, preserved cheese was known as caseus formatus—formed cheese.
Over time, a new word, formaticum, emerged to refer to this formed cheese. French and Italian, as well as Catalán, Breton and Provençal, chose this angle when a word evolved to refer to the lovely, stinky stuff. Several other languages, ours included, derived their words from the first part of the compound noun, caseus. Decades of family photos would have had a very different look if English had taken the other fork in the road.