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Is the cheese blue or bleu?

Q: I was always a snob and looked down on the poor souls who referred to “bleu cheese” as “blue cheese.”  Now “blue” seems to be the preferred spelling. Did this misspelling become acceptable because “bleu” seemed like a mistake to most Americans?

A: You’ll be dismayed to hear this, but the phrase “blue cheese” showed up in English a century and a half before the Frenchified “bleu cheese” version.

In fact, the phrase “blue cheese” may have appeared in English before fromage bleu made its appearance in French. Here’s the story.

The earliest example of the phrase “blue cheese” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from an Aug. 3, 1787, entry in The Torrington Diaries, an account of John Byng Torrington’s travels in England and Wales:

“I eat to day at dinner, and at supper, some excellent blue cheese … which … resembles, both in color and taste, the blue mold of Cheshire cheese.”

It wasn’t until the 20th century that “bleu cheese” showed up. The earliest examples that we could find were from the 1940s.

A 1941 issue of the journal Dairy Industries, for example, notes that “Frenchmen are no longer particularly interested in Argentine bleu cheese.” (Argentine bleu cheese? Who knew?)

Interestingly, the only citation for “bleu cheese” in the OED is from this quip by Ogden Nash in You Can’t Get There From Here (1957): “Every time the menu lists bleu cheese I want to order fromage blue, / Don’t you?”

The earliest example of fromage bleu that we could find in a search of French works in the Google Books database was in Huit Jours d’Absence, an 1821 book by H. Saint-Thomas.

In gushing over a cheesemonger’s creations, the author writes that nous mangeon avec délices (“we eat with delight”) the delicacies from the marchand de fromage bleu (“the blue-cheese merchant”).

But even if it turns out that there are earlier examples of fromage bleu out there, we see no reason why an English speaker should refer to all blue cheeses as “bleu cheeses.”

The three best-known blue cheeses are probably Roquefort (French), Gorgonzola (Italian), and Stilton (English).

It would be just as silly to refer to Gorgonzola as a “bleu cheese” or un fromage bleu as it would be to use either term for Stilton.

As for Roquefort, why shouldn’t an American (good speller or bad) call it a “blue cheese”? After all, the cheese is French, not the speaker.

Update: A French reader of the blog points out that “we rarely say fromage bleu. Instead, we say bleu, du bleu, or bleu de [place where it was made].”

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