The expression is used when a person makes a whole story for not much, exaggerates, amplifies to the extreme a difficulty. Why using cheese to describe this? It gives me the opportunity to tell you where the French word for cheese “fromage” comes from.
This idiom is quite recent since it appeared in the 20th century. The origin comes from the idea that starting from not much (milk, a simple and natural food), one can achieve something very elaborated (cheese with taste, complex shapes and textures, which requires know-how, experience, technique…).
The cheese manufacture process is to transform a liquid ingredient – milk (whether it may be cow, sheep or goat milk) – into a solid volume and a specific shape, cheese. This is due to:
- coagulation of milk under the action of llactic ferments or rennet,
- draining process
As a result a “shapeless” mass is transformed into a precise “shape” (“forme” in French). That is why initially it was referred to as “formage” or ”fourmage” (“shaping”).
Cheese poured into a mold of a specific form took the name of its mold.
An etymological analysis of the word fromage / cheese shows that the word comes from the objectives of milk preservation and the importance of the fabrication process.
The Greek “phormos” gave the Latin “forma” which means to mold or form. In antiquity, the term “caseus formaticus” was used to refer to “cheese made in a mold”. The French language kept only the second word formaticus, thus emphasizing on the form determined by the mold. Subsequently “forma” became “fourmage” then”fromaige” and finally “fromage” in the 15th century.
Some French cheeses still use the original name “fourme : Fourme de Saint-Flour, Fourme de Montbrison, Fourme d’Ambert …).
The expression is also used in its negative form. “N’en fait pas tout un fromage” / lit. “Don’t make a whole cheese of this”: you must not exaggerate the importance of the event we are talking about, “there’s nothing to whip a cat”