A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Why does Swiss cheese have holes in it?

March 23, 2001

Dear Cecil:

Why does Swiss cheese have holes in it?

Cecil replies:

No one wants to face up to this squarely, so I guess it's up to me. Swiss cheese has holes in it because of bacteria passing gas. Contemplating a typical piece of Swiss cheese, the majority of whose holes, by USDA regulation, must measure between 11/16 and 13/16 of an inch in diameter, you may think: Here was a little microbe with a serious case of indigestion. But actually it's the work of armies of microbes, specifically Propionibacteria shermanii. The P. shermanii consume the lactic acid excreted by other bacteria (the ones that cause the milk to turn into cheese in the first place) and belch, toot, and otherwise exude copious amounts of carbon dioxide gas. This produces what the Swiss-cheese industry, hoping to distract from the reality of the matter, calls "eyes." It's a beautiful, natural process, with the advantage that it enables cheese makers to charge good money for a product that by law is partly air.

But the air/cheese ratio will be changing soon. It seems Swiss cheese with big holes fouls up modern slicing machinery. So the industry is now asking that the regulations for Grade A Swiss be revised to make the average hole only three-eighths of an inch in diameter — one-quarter the area it is today. (Small-hole Swiss is now classified as Grade B, which commands a lesser price. Libertarians, needless to say, are frothing at the very idea of the government regulating Swiss cheese hole size.) For many it just won't be the same. One nudnick on the Internet, showing the effects of too much consumer brainwashing, claims the best part of Swiss cheese is the holes: "If only there were more holes and they were bigger"! Come over to my house, bud, and I'll sell you some cheese that's all holes. The rest of you can console yourselves with the thought that you'll be getting more cheese and less thin air.

To the Teeming Millions

The following urgent dispatch refers to Cecil's report in More of the Straight Dope on etaoin shrdlu, the enigmatic phrase that occasionally appeared in newspapers in the old "hot type" days when Linotype operators ran off a test line and forgot to discard it. The letters are in two rows at the left end of the Linotype keyboard, their order reflecting their frequency of use in English, e being the most common, t the second, and so on. Skip Newhall writes:

Dear Cecil:

Another note regarding ETAOIN SHRDLU.

I recently completed my own count of the frequency of letters in English-language text. Here are some results that may be of interest.

I surveyed approximately 1,000 diverse works, including:

Articles from the Encyclopedia Britannica
Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoevsky)
The Iliad, The Odyssey (Homer)
The Descent of Man (Charles Darwin)
Peer Gynt (Henrik Ibsen)
Faust (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)
History of the Peloponnesian War (Thucydides)
The Forged Coupon (Leo Tolstoy)
Several writings of Karl Marx
World Fact Book of 1998 for 265 Countries
The King James Bible
Publications of the Cambridge Philosophical Society
Armadale (Wilkie Collins)
Don Quixote (Miguel de Cervantes)
Treasure Island (Robert Louis Stevenson)
Several works of Mark Twain
Northanger Abbey, Emma, Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)
Several works of William Shakespeare
Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained (John Milton)
Canterbury Tales (Geoffrey Chaucer)
Frankenstein (Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley)
Works by Rudyard Kipling, Robert Browning, Alexis De Tocqueville, James Thoreau, Charles Dickens, Plato, Virgil, Upton Sinclair, Herman Melville, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne
The U.S. Constitution
Inauguration speeches of the Presidents
The Book of Mormon
The Declaration of Independence
The Japanese surrender document
Sections of the California State Vehicle Code
. . . and hundred of others: fiction and non-fiction, scientific journals, travel articles, music history, the Processes of Daguerreotype, etc.

Total characters: 100,676,543 (including blanks and returns).
Total printing characters: 80,937,206.
Total alphabetic characters: 75,984,149 (case-insensitive).
The case-insensitive results:

e 9,515,228
t 6,907,773
a 6,197,398
o 5,832,351
n 5,278,477
i 5,259,643
s 4,833,624
h 4,768,804
r 4,500,078
d 3,223,872
l 3,106,767
u 2,163,536
m 2,028,374
c 1,938,537
f 1,761,963
w 1,618,849
y 1,493,380
g 1,430,435
p 1,328,237
b 1,133,617
v 760,577
k 520,342
x 126,638
j 115,148
q 83,962
z 56,539

You will notice that the order of n and i is reversed from that in etaoin, though the counts differ by less than 0.2 percent, a statistically insignificant difference.

The full results for all 94 distinct printing characters:

e 9,375,509
t 6,649,073
a 5,915,817
o 5,719,563
n 5,154,585
i 4,847,338
s 4,646,221
h 4,640,950
r 4,404,180
d 3,126,435
l 2,992,110
u 2,112,868
m 1,877,122
c 1,803,263
f 1,688,737
w 1,515,043
, 1,451,363
y 1,448,562
g 1,348,958
p 1,230,763
b 1,025,901
. 808,411
v 736,666
k 496,502
I 412,305
" 298,550
: 294,224
A 281,581
- 264,403
T 258,700
' 215,784
1 196,659
S 187,403
; 177,634
0 174,390
M 151,252
E 139,719
C 135,274
H 127,854
N 123,892
x 119,543
2 115,900
L 114,657
O 112,788
B 107,716
W 103,806
9 102,273
P 97,474
D 97,437
R 95,898
3 82,151
G 81,477
? 78,752
4 78,544
q 76,463
_ 76,179
F 73,226
j 69,515
5 67,286
! 65,746
( 62,747
) 62,746
6 58,793
8 53,426
7 52,612
U 50,668
z 49,245
J 45,633
Y 44,818
* 25,693
V 23,911
K 23,840
% 19,870
] 16,253
[ 16,130
/ 9,906
Q 7,499
Z 7,294
X 7,095
$ 5,845
~ 4,201
' 4,191
@ 3,632
= 2,641
> 1,432
< 980
& 971
| 700
} 576
{ 564
# 497
+ 176
^ 158
\ 68

As an added bit of information, there are 63,411,479 pairs of characters. The 28 most frequent pairs of case-insensitive letters and their counts are:

t h 2,190,599
h e 2,061,344
i n 1,250,677
a n 1,230,825
e r 1,221,884
r e 992,695
n d 961,162
o n 828,413
a t 796,113
e n 773,690
h a 764,467
o u 753,440
o r 679,915
e s 678,246
e d 670,246
t o 651,697
i s 636,399
h i 627,148
o f 618,344
i t 616,480
a r 591,049
t e 579,463
s t 578,909
n g 570,404
a s 532,555
s e 532,197
v e 518,505
a l 503,406

Regards,

Skip Newhall

Pretty impressive, Skip. So tell me, exactly how long has it been since you've had a date?

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