A wry view of life for the world-weary

What Is The Origin Of (98)?…


Chalk and cheese

We use this expression to indicate that a couple of things are radically different from each other and have nothing in common.

The warning, caveat emptor, has a long pedigree. In the days when consumer rights were unheard of and trading standards were rudimentary, it seems to have been a natural inclination on the part of the shopkeeper to try to hoodwink the customer by passing across shoddy goods or foodstuffs that had some of the ingredients replaced by inferior and substandard substitutes. One of these egregious practices would appear to be the contamination of cheese with chalk. John Gower in his Confessio Amantis of 1393 wrote of one such malefactor, “and thus full ofte chalk for cheese he changeth with ful little cost”.

Potentially profitable as the practice may have been, it is hard to imagine that the substitution would go undetected for long. Indeed, if Hugh Latimer’s remark of 1555 is anything to go by – “as though I could not discern cheese from chalk” – anyone who fell for it must have been considered a prize idiot. Nowadays we add “like” or “as different as” to the phrase.

Talking of chalk, it appears in a rather odd phrase, by a long chalk or not by a long chalk, the latter indicating that there was little in it and the former, that there was a considerable distance between the two positions.

When not being used to adulterate cheese, chalk was a handy substance with which to write on walls, slates and other surfaces. As well as being great social institutions, public houses were places where games of all sorts, from skittles, quoits to darts, dominoes, cribbage and billiards, were played. Each game involved some form of scoring to determine who was winning and/or how many points were needed for victory. Often chalk was deployed to keep score.

It is easy to imagine that our phrase developed from observing the relative positions of two competitors. If the game was close, the difference in chalk tallies would be short – not by a long chalk – whereas if one was streets ahead of the other, their chalk tally would be considerably longer – a long chalk – than their opponent’s.

Another feature of the pub was the tab, a form of credit whereby the publican would allow the toper to quaff ales on the promise of settlement at some more convenient day, for example pay-day. Of course, the publican took a risk on the creditworthiness of their clients, a fact that Charles Dickens commented on in Great Expectations, “there was a bar at the Jolly Bargemen, with some alarmingly long chalk scores in it on the wall at the side of the door, which seemed to me to be never paid off”.

Credit was known as chalk and was a feature of pub life for centuries. In 1597 the following appeared in print, “all my debts stande chaukt upone the poste for liquor”. Credit may not have been inexhaustible as this reference from Chapman’s May-Day of 1611 shows, “Faith sir, she has chalked up twenty shillings already and swears she will chalk no more”, although some customers clearly abused the facility, as Punch reveals in 1843, “when you wish for beer, resort freely to the chalk…until it becomes unproductive, when you may try it in another quarter”.

The custom spawned the phrase chalk it up which we often use with experience, putting a positive spin on some calamity or other.


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