The Crucial Difference Between Cheesy and Corny

And what our strong neural associations with physical taste have to do with it

corn, cheese
Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock / Getty; De Agostini / Getty

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Language lets us taste the world around us all the time without ever opening our mouth. You don’t have to lick your smack-talking friend to know they’re salty, nor must you nibble on the Hollywood celebrity who took the lead role in a Broadway play to know their performance is hammy. Gym rats with no genetic relationship to cows are beefy, and fishy situations arise all the time in environments completely unsuitable for marine life.

Suffice it to say, food words make such a deep impression on the consciousness that English need only append a measly little -y to drag them from the palate into the realm of abstract tastes. But what relationship does this newly formed adjective have to the experience of the food itself? This struck me the other day in the form of a more specific question: What’s the difference between cheesy and corny? And what does that have to do with the difference between cheese and corn?

Both etymologies are anecdotal and inconclusive. By some accounts, corny comes to us via jazz musicians in the 1930s, describing licks that sounded unfashionable and trite—something more at home in the agricultural environment of a square dance than a sophisticated urban jazz club. Corny might have also been extrapolated from seed catalogs that circulated starting in the 1890s and included simple and predictable little jokes in the margins that some called “corn jokes.” Either way, the meaning seems to hinge on an aesthetically condescending geographic association with rural America. Cheesy, by contrast, has almost no clear path to its current association. Some claim the term has nothing to do with the food, but instead arrives through an ironic reversal of the Urdu chiz, meaning “thing,” which, picked up by British occupiers in the early 1800s, gave us phrases like “the big cheese.”

Although this may have played a role in ushering it into the lexicon, I have a hunch that what gave cheesy its semantic staying power is something much more delicious. Cheesy and corny, terms both used to denigrate aesthetic taste, latch on to our strong neural associations with physical taste. Cheese and corn are both cheap but delicious sources of bodily fuel—in the same way that cheesy or corny music might be catchy and enjoyable but not exactly the sublime and soul-sustaining symphony the heart yearns for. The difference in gustatory experience also aptly illustrates the subtle semantic distinction between the two: something corny might be light and sweet, but ultimately small and insignificant, whereas something cheesy pours on a heavy and pleasing coat of coagulated fat to disguise a lack of substantive meat. Despite their negative connotations, I think corn and cheese, used in moderation, are important components of the arts, culinary and otherwise. I mean, who doesn’t love an arepa? But for our Wednesday clue, I wanted to highlight the linguistic coincidence by using the same clue for both words: Food-related word used to describe bad jokes.