What Does the Cheese Stands Alone Mean?

The cheese stands alone: This common phrase may be familiar from your childhood. In fact, when you hear it, you may feel like singing the words to a recognizable tune. But do you know what the saying means? Read on for its definition, as well as origin.

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What Does the Cheese Stands Alone Mean?

This expression is used to say that someone is all alone or feels alone in a situation— isolated and like the odd person out. It is often used when someone feels alone or left out in a group setting.

Here are some example sentences using the phrase the cheese stands alone:

  • I didn’t really know anyone at the holiday party and ended up spending most of the time standing by myself near the punch. It was a real the-cheese-stands-alone moment.
  • At the square dance, everyone was pairing up, and I found myself without a partner. I said, under my breath, “The cheese stands alone.” 
  • I should have known my first day at my new school would end up like the saying goes: the cheese stands alone. I felt like the odd man out—I didn’t have anyone to talk to or sit with at lunch. 
  • The cheese stands alone this Valentine’s Day: I don’t have a sweetheart or anyone to call mine on February 14th.

The Origin of the Expression

The cheese stands alone is a line from the popular nursery rhyme, children’s song, and children’s singing game “The Farmer in the Dell.” As a singing game, play revolves around the following lyrics, which include the line the cheese stands alone:

The farmer in the dell
Hi-ho (sometimes heigh-ho), the derry-o
The farmer in the dell

The farmer takes a wife
Hi-ho, the derry-o
The farmer takes a wife

The wife takes a child
Hi-ho, the derry-o
The wife takes a child

The child takes a nurse 
Hi-ho, the derry-o
The child takes a nurse

The nurse takes a cow 
Hi-ho, the derry-o
The nurse takes a cow

The cow takes a dog
Hi-ho, the derry-o
The cow takes a dog

The dog takes a cat
Hi-ho, the derry-o
The dog takes a cat

The cat takes a mouse (or rat)
Hi-ho, the derry-o
The cat takes a mouse (or rat)

The mouse (or rat) takes the cheese 
Hi-ho, the derry-o
The mouse (or rat) takes the cheese

The cheese stands alone
Hi-ho, the derry-o
The cheese stands alone

The lyrics are sung using a melody similar to another nursery rhyme, “A-Hunting We Will Go.” 

To play, nine children gather. They hold hands and form a circle around one participant who is selected as the “farmer.” Everyone begins singing the first verse and moving around the farmer by walking, skipping, or dancing. When they get to the end of the first verse, they stop moving and the farmer points to or otherwise chooses a “wife,” who joins the farmer in the center of the circle. The other players close the circle, which is now smaller. They then start moving again and singing the next verse. This is all repeated until the “cheese” is selected. The cheese, of course, is the last person chosen. 

The rest of the children then form a circle around the cheese, who stands in the center solo, and sing the final verse. Even though the expression is aptly used to describe someone who is or feels alone, in the game, the cheese is usually chosen as the farmer for the next go, or the next round of play. The farmer is alone in the beginning of the game, too, but is then joined in the “dell” by the rest of the kids and isn’t alone at all. (A dell is a small valley, usually secluded and at least partially wooded.)

Knowing the rules of the game, it’s easy to see how the line came to be used as a common expression to describe a person who, like the last child chosen, is physically isolated or who feels all alone and like the odd person out, especially in a group setting.

The rhyme appears to have originated in Germany as “Es fuhr ein Bau’r ins Holz” and dates to 1826. Originally, it was even more of a courtship game. It was likely brought to America by German immigrants, and seems to have become popular—well, the modern version of it we know today, anyway, which changed the original a bit—in New York around 1883. After that time, it spread throughout the US and then around the globe. Different variations of the rhyme are found in other countries.

Understanding Idioms

The cheese stands alone is considered an idiom. An idiom is a figurative expression with an intended meaning that, at least typically, can’t be fully understood just by looking at the definitions of the individual words that comprise it. Even if you’ve never heard the term idiom, you have most likely heard many idiomatic expressions. Here are just a few of the most common idioms used today:

You’re in hot water.
His boss gave him the ax.
It’s time to face the music.
You’ve hit the nail on the head.

If you took the first example literally, you’d think it was describing a person standing in a bathtub full of hot water, perhaps. But the expression is actually used to describe a person who’s in trouble. Likewise, rather than literally being handed a tool for chopping wood, if you get the ax from your boss, it means you’re getting fired. It’s time to face the music means that it’s time to come to terms with the consequences of your actions. And when someone has hit the nail on the head, they’ve gotten an answer exactly right or done something exactly as it should have been done.

Try to understand the cheese stands alone literally, and you’d likely be a little confused. After all, cheese can’t physically stand! Hear or read the phrase, and you may still be baffled without enough context. You may not understand what cheese has to do with the person speaking or being discussed. Now you know the expression doesn’t actually have anything to do with cheese at all, and is merely a way of saying that a person is all alone or feels all alone.

Discover more common idioms here.

Summary

The cheese stands alone is used to describe a person who is all alone or feels all alone. It is a line from a popular children’s nursery rhyme, song, and game called “The Farmer in the Dell.” In the game, the “cheese” is the last person chosen and is left standing alone in the center of a circle, hence the use of the phrase as an idiomatic expression outside of the song and game with the meaning above.
PS: Did you know that limericks may have been inspired by children’s nursery rhymes? Learn how to write a limerick