cheesedick for a year.
June 18, 2009 6:59 AM   Subscribe

how do i explain the concept of "cheesy" to non-native English speakers?

i'm curious in how you've explained what cheesy (or alternately, "lame" or even if we want to be academic, "campy") is to people who speak language as a second language, and while their comprehension is good, their grasp of these esoteric things is not. interestingly, much of this may be cultural because what is cheesy to us is obviously not cheesy to others... yet, how do we get the concept across? that something is supposed to be nice, but actually is not? that it is supposed to be honest, but comes of as.. superficial?
posted by yonation to Writing & Language (35 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: damnit. "comes off as... superficial"
posted by yonation at 6:59 AM on June 18, 2009

weirdly innappropriately overly sentimental
posted by mpls2 at 7:05 AM on June 18, 2009

You may have already ruled this out, but is it possible to find out if there is a word for cheesy in these people's native tongue(s)?

Or you could give multiple examples to help them tie it together. Maybe ones you think they would grasp. Like David Hasselhoff (unless they're German, heh), or Hallmark movies, etc.

Reading that link, I don't really think of the things she lists as cheesy, just campy. Camp and cheese seem like 2 different, but sometimes related things. It's also a generational thing. I would never even think of flapper clothes as something campy, for example. Obviously what is cheesy is culturally relative, but there are some things that are found cheesy by most Americans, even if they still enjoy them. Like I like "D'ya Think I'm Sexy" by Rod Stewart, but know it's really cheesy.
posted by ishotjr at 7:09 AM on June 18, 2009

This person's first language will almost certainly have a similar word or concept.

Maybe find someone who speaks this person's first language and your language equally well and ask them for a word (or an idiom) that would best describe it in English.

Sorry for the general response...

What language does this person speak?
posted by foooooogasm at 7:09 AM on June 18, 2009

*Instead of Americans, I should have said English-speakers
posted by ishotjr at 7:10 AM on June 18, 2009

Or is this a hypothetical dilemma?

If you're just trying to understand the concept, such that you could explain it to someone else if you needed to, then I think the Sontag essay you linked to is a pretty good start. Couldja say more about what in that essay isn't doing it for you?
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:11 AM on June 18, 2009

I tend to think of cheesy as 'enthusiastically bad.' Cheese knows it's not Shakespeare, but is going to have fun with it. And cheesy things are generally well liked, even though people would be embarrassed to admit it.
posted by Caravantea at 7:26 AM on June 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

There's an section on the international aspects of "camp" that you might find useful.

Here are translations in other languages for cheesy.

Here are translations in other languages for lame.

The translations for camp are hodgepodge, because that word in English has many different uses (campgrounds, camping, campy, etc.), but some might be useful, like the Danish:

   adj. - affekteret, opstyltet, camp, kvindagtig, bøsset
   n. - smagløshed, opstyltethed, banalitet

Woot! I found my new AskMe name: smagløshed!
posted by foooooogasm at 7:27 AM on June 18, 2009

This person's first language will almost certainly have a similar word or concept.

Possibly, though not necessarily, true. This is a cultural concept and I wouldn't be at all surprised if some cultures lack the concept, leading to languages that lack the requisite word. You can't just use a dictionary definition for a word like this. foooooooogasm's links are great examples (I can read the Korean definition, and it's not a good translation).
posted by smorange at 7:34 AM on June 18, 2009

How about 'corny'? Maybe not exactly the same thing, though somewhat similar. Possibly the same lost in translation problem as cheesy, though.
posted by JenMarie at 7:43 AM on June 18, 2009

Here are translations in other languages for cheesy.

Uh, most of those are translations of "cheesy" as in "This Macaroni & Cheese is too cheesy."
posted by vacapinta at 7:51 AM on June 18, 2009

We've thought long and hard on several occasions on how to translate cheesy into German and have come up empty-handed. Cheesy is not a natural property, so no, there's no way you'll necessarily find translations of it. Kitsch is rather international since it's part of art history, but I don't think that's really the same as cheesy.

I think your best bet is find a famous old song that's cheesy. Something from the 80s?
posted by creasy boy at 7:52 AM on June 18, 2009

The other language's nearest equivalent will probably not have the same, erm, flavour as what "cheesy" means to a native English speaker from whatever region. If you have a firm idea of what it means for you, (i.e. for me both "camp" and "lame" are different) go via the actual thing rather than just words, i.e. try showing them pictures of things that you consider archetypally "cheesy" and comparable things that are "not cheesy", as well maybe as things that are "nearly cheesy but not quite, because XYZ". Then they will have an idea of what it means to you in your culture and will classify it in relation to their own native vocabulary themselves.
posted by runincircles at 7:52 AM on June 18, 2009

I think a few minutes of a B movie would illustrate the concept well. Anyone can tell the difference between a psychologically thrilling horror movie and Night of the Leapus.
posted by Juliet Banana at 7:54 AM on June 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

I would explain "cheesy" as embarrassingly ridiculous in a sentimental and/or juvenile way.

Camp isn't quite the same thing, as it is silly, yes but intentionally theatrical and flamboyant, often exaggerating stereotypes (like a pop-culture commedia del'arte.)
posted by desuetude at 8:33 AM on June 18, 2009

Cheesy works are banal, they lack novelty, they are overdetermined by their tropes, they are predictable, and so they are unsatisfying as fiction (or film or painting or whatever), but potentially satisfying ironically, as objects of derision.

Juliet Banana has the right idea. Examples are always helpful.
posted by notyou at 8:35 AM on June 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

I see cheesy as something with really good intentions that nevertheless makes me (and my peers) want to cringe. Usually it's some feature that's been overly exaggerated - e.g. trying too hard - but that one error renders the product wholly unpalatable.
posted by Phire at 8:48 AM on June 18, 2009

I've taught English in a number of different contexts, and have at least once or twice tried to teach "cheesy".

It is a primarily Western concept, and there are a lot of societies that don't really do ironic / sarcastic well. They might understand "old-fashioned" or "unfashionable" or "unpopular", maybe "sentimental"... but there are places where there is just no such thing as cheesy.

Do you remember stav trying to explain the "5 core concepts" of Korean culture, needing multiple paragraphs to try to poorly translate each one, exemplify, describe, and still you come away scratching your head? It's like that.
posted by Meatbomb at 8:54 AM on June 18, 2009

This is a tough one. I've tried to explain it to several non native English speakers from various cultures and had mixed results.mpls2 has the right general idea: overly sentimental or emotional. I think there's also often an element of insincerity and being formulaic. It's easiest to explain by familiar examples though. That way you can look at what qualities of something make it cheesy without having to account for any cultural message/baggage of your example that's not related to cheesiness. When I was trying to explain it to my Chinese coworkers I would use Chinese pop music as an example. That worked well enough that one guy actually hit on a Chinese (Mandarin fwiw) term that is apparently a pretty good match, though I can't remember what it is anymore. Obviously use your judgement if you're going to choose examples like that, because although none of my coworkers cared that I thought Chinese pop music was cheesy, I could see people getting offended if you take something they like as an example.

That said, I think mocking can also help. For example if you say "This song is cheesy because of X and Y" but the person you're explaining to doesn't quite get it, maybe it's because the level of sentiment or emotionality in the song just seems normal or mundane to them. If that's the case, you can crank it up a notch by doing your own ultra cheesy rendition of the song. That may make them think of some cheesier songs that they know of, and link in to cheesiness related concepts in their own language.

It's very tricky, this cheesy business. I wish you luck in your efforts.
posted by benign at 8:56 AM on June 18, 2009

In Russia and ex-Soviet Central Asia, they love big gala event style "variety shows"... with a hundred can-can kicking dancers, then a heartfelt ballad by an open-shirted crooner, than an Abba medley, then a comedy duo with the jokes centered around one guy being a fat retard.

Pure fucking cheese. And many of my friends there would sit enraptured. "Oooh, so fancy."

You can't have cheese without "good taste". And you can't have good taste without fashion... There is actually a massive cultural backstory that needs to be built up before cheesiness can emerge.
posted by Meatbomb at 8:59 AM on June 18, 2009 [9 favorites]

Pictures might work. A slide show of cheesy-tacky vs pedestrian would probably do more than words could ever explain.

An advertisement for a new Ford car vs an ad from Crazy Ed's Discount House of Wheelz.

A normal person vs a stereotypical "American" tourist in Paris, for example (overweight, three cameras, flower shirt, zinc on nose, socks and sandals) might get a laugh from non-American students.

Kitsch and antifashion (i.e. hipsterism) are too ironic and complicated to deal with until all that is second nature, though. Don't try.

The best universal translation I can think of is "too much."
posted by rokusan at 8:59 AM on June 18, 2009

I always thought it came from the fake smiles that result when the person with the camera yells "SAY CHEESE!" Everyone knows what those tense fake smiles mean - fake, giddy, hysterical, trying too hard, a little crazy.
posted by selfmedicating at 9:01 AM on June 18, 2009

One thing that comes to my mind are older relatives who try way too hard to be "hip" and "with it" - using young kids' slang in a forced way, trying to dress in too-sexy clothes that don't flatter their bodies, dancing in truly embarrassing (not adorably embarrassing) ways at a wedding reception.

I think it fits with the "trying too hard" theme some other commentors mentioned.
posted by cadge at 9:10 AM on June 18, 2009

Lots of examples in Bill Simmons' Unintentional Comedy Scale. I think most of them boil down to: "painfully unaware of their own ridiculousness." That ridiculousness could stem from any number of sources, most of which are probably culturally determined.
posted by thebergfather at 9:11 AM on June 18, 2009

Am I the only one who has found examples to be utterly unhelpful for this sort of translation, unless you already know what's "cheesy" in their particular culture? As pointed out above, the sort of over-the-top stuff that's cheesy to some Americans is sometimes beloved (or at least not a target of mocking derision) in other countries.
posted by desuetude at 9:33 AM on June 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

I would say it is something that is unsophisticated but still somewhat enjoyable.
posted by reenum at 9:42 AM on June 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Forget the abstract concepts for a minute. Let's get literal.

Stage 1, milk: Cool, fresh, popular.
Stage 2, spoilage: DO NOT WANT.
Stage 3, the cheese: Deliciously unmilky. Way better than that rancid stuff that came before. Connoisseurs prefer the stuff that stinks the most.
posted by Sys Rq at 9:47 AM on June 18, 2009

I remember teaching my Italian husband this term - he got it pretty quickly. I used "cheesy" to describe some of his over-the-top romantic overtures when we were first dating. He soon understood that some things that are sweet in Italy are just ridiculous (cheesy) to a cynical American.
posted by jrichards at 10:09 AM on June 18, 2009

Show them a picture of a Chrysler product.
posted by Zambrano at 10:29 AM on June 18, 2009

If the person speaks Spanish, it's 'cursi,' and if they speak Brazilian Portuguese, it's 'brega.'
posted by umbú at 10:50 AM on June 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Not a perfect parallel, but I asked a similar question not too long ago. I think that showing these kinds of examples might assist. At least so much as puns are typically cheesy in nature.

Something that is silly and amusing, but only because it is stupid and irrelevant.
posted by milqman at 11:04 AM on June 18, 2009

From what I understand, it's evolved from baseball terminology. When a pitcher throws a bad pitch deliberately to see if the batter will waste a swing on it, it's called "Throwning Cheese" or "Pitching Cheese." The pitch is bait, like chese in a mouse trap, hence "cheese".

A really bad pitch that's just a really bad pitch will almost look like the pitcher is "Pitching Cheese", and be called a "cheesey pitch." It's a fun term, so has come to apply to all manner of things that just look so bad it seems almost deliberate.
posted by Slap*Happy at 12:16 PM on June 18, 2009

In otherwords, it's completely untranslatable.
posted by Slap*Happy at 12:17 PM on June 18, 2009

Response by poster: all interesting responses, people, not one that i could pick as a best answer! of course what one person finds cheesy another person may find tasteful (and this needn't be a matter of borders or languages, as we all know it works that way between class lines, for instance). the interesting part is how to translate this sentiment into something, not necessarily to pick apart *why* it is.
posted by yonation at 2:27 PM on June 18, 2009

Ask them to remember something - a song, a movie, a tv show, whatever - that they loved as a kid or a teenager, but that they are totally embarrassed to admit now because now they realize how awful and silly it really is. That thing is "cheesy."
posted by platinum at 2:31 PM on June 18, 2009

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