“Cheese it!” was a popular expression in the 19th century, usually a warning from one person to another to stop their current activity because a policeman was approaching (‘Cheese it—the cops!”). The expression was used in English slang by at least the 1810s and quickly came to America.
“Cheese it!” most probably means “Cease it!”, but not everyone agrees with that etymology. The San Francisco word researcher Peter Tamony noted that cheese was eaten at the end of a meal, so “Cheese it!” could have meant “End it!” from culinary usage. This theory is not supported with historical citations.
“Cheese it, the cops!” was printed in the Brooklyn (NY) Daily Times on August 11, 1870.
World Wide Words - Cheese it!
Cheese it! means either to be silent (“Will you cheese it! I don’t want to hear!”) or to stop what you are doing, presumably something illegal or inappropriate, or to leave or run away. The expression is now virtually defunct, but it turns up often enough in older writing, as you say, that it’s not entirely unknown even now.
It was originally British slang of the early nineteenth century, but was later taken to the US — it turns up, for example, in a story in O Henry’s The Voice of the City, published in 1908: “The defence of Mr Conover was so prompt and admirable that the conflict was protracted until the onlookers unselfishly gave the warning cry of ‘Cheese it — the cop!’” It’s also in The Inimitable Jeeves by P G Wodehouse, published in 1923: “He had been clearing away the breakfast things, but at the sound of the young master’s voice cheesed it courteously.” The first example occurs in James Hardy Vaux’s A New and Comprehensive Vocabulary of the Flash Language of 1812. Flash at the time referred to men associated with disreputable sports such as boxing and generally to thieves, tramps, and prostitutes, so flash language was the cant or slang of criminals.
Vaux said that cheese it meant to keep quiet or to stop, desist or leave off doing something. What he actually wrote was that it meant the same as stow it, which Vaux explained as “an intimation from a thief to his pall, to desist from what he is about, on the occasion of some alarm.” This is a much older expression that comes from the idea of putting cargo in ship’s storage and shutting the hatches.
Unfortunately, we don’t have such a simple explanation for cheese it. It might have been a version of cease. Jonathon Green, in the Cassell Dictionary of Slang, also points to an old proverb, after cheese comes nothing, which refers to cheese being the last item in a meal. This sounds more than a little literary and stretched, but perhaps the proverb was well enough known then that it made sense just to say “cheese!”
(Historical Dictionary of American Slang)
cheese v. [orig. unkn.] Orig. Und. to stop (what one is saying or doing) instantly esp. (now solely) at the approach of authority.—usu. constr. with it; (hence) to run away at the approach of authority. Also intrans.
1811 Lexicon Balatron.: Cheese It. Be silent, be quiet, don’t do it. Cheese it, the coves are fly; be silent, the people understand our discourse.
1812 Vauz Vocab.: Cheese it. The same as stow it. Cheese That. see Stow that.
1840 in Botkin Sidewalks236: “Cheese it!” again—always this cry [at the theater] which, though it be…a highly plastic expression, yet…mujst have come in sometimes with great irrelevance.
1871 Banka Prison Life 493: Stop,...Cheese.
1871 “M. Twain” Roughing It 253: Cheese it, pard. You’ve banked your ball clean outside the string.
163: Cheese it, Tompkins, that joke was born before you were.
1874 Pember Metropolis 110: The only answer she vouchsafed to my sympathetic inquiry was a hasty sotto-voce intimation that I should “cheese it.”
1877 Bartlett Amer. (ed. 4) 779: Cheese it. What bad boys exclaim to one another when a policeman is seen coming, i.e. run, scamper.
Main Entry: cheese
Function: transitive verb
Inflected Form(s): cheesed; chees·ing
Etymology: origin unknown
Date: circa 1811
: to put an end to : stop
— cheese it —used in the imperative as a warning of danger
(Oxford English Dictionary)
slang (orig. Thieves). To stop, give up, leave off. cheese it! = have done! run away!
1812 J. H. VAUX Flash Dict., Cheese it, the same as Stow it.
1866 Even. Standard 27 July, As soon as he went up the prisoner Blagin said, ‘Cheese it (run away), here’s the bobby coming’.
1873 Slang Dict., Cheese or Cheese it (evidently a corruption of cease) leave off, or have done: ‘Cheese your barrikin’, hold your noise. Term very common.
1880 Times, for the year 1980 (1880?—ed.) 4/4 He told the station master at the balloon depôt to cheese it, but thought better of it afterwards.
1882 J. HAWTHORNE Fort. Fool I. xxxiii, ‘Cheese it, mates! ‘ere comes the bobbies!’
1910 CHESTERTON Alarms & Discursions 58 Their citizens..will often say ‘Cheese it!’
1923 WODEHOUSE Inimit. Jeeves i. 9 He had been clearing away the breakfast things, but at the sound of the young master’s voice cheesed it courteously.
1938 Code of Woosters xii. 261, I pulled myself together and cheesed the bird imitation.
A Dictionary of Buckish Slang, University Wit, and Pickpocket Eloquence
By Francis Grose, Hewson Clarke, George Cruikshank
Published by Printed for C. Chappel
CHEESE IT. Be silent, be quiet, don’t do it. Cheese it, the coves are fly ; be silent, the people understand our discourse.
11 August 1870, Brooklyn (NY) Daily Times, “A Colored Mormon,” pg. 3, col. 6:
“CHEESE IT, THE COPS ARE COMING!”
11 October 1884, Trenton (NJ) Evening Times, pg. 7:
“Hi, Patsy! Cheese it! The cop’s a-comin!”
Cheese It-the Cops!
By Emanuel Henry Lavine
Published by The Vanguard Press
The City in Slang:
New York Life and Popular Speech
By Irving L. Allen
Published by Oxford University Press US
The old but still famous exclamation cheese it! variously meaning stop it!, be quiet!, look out!, don’t do it!, or run away! dates to around 1810 in British cant, was soon in New York, and is of uncertain etymology. In the 1840s, gallery gods shouted it as a disapproving catcall from the uppermost reaches, or paradise, of Bowery theaters. The etymologist Peter Tamony speculated that Cheese it! derives from the old custom of eating a bit of cheese to conclude a meal, thus, figuratively to stop, to cease, whatever one is doing—to cheese it. Tamony’s essay is reprinted in Cohen (1989, 109-110. Yet major dictionaries say it is perhaps just a dialectal alteration of cease it!