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How Massey-Harris became a slang term
Aug 14, 2014

After reading the August 1 Twisty Tongue,
Helen Norrie asked, “What on earth did Massey-Harris have to do with cheese?” 
The column in question had noted that Massey-Harris was First World War slang for “cheese.”
The answer to Norrie’s question provides us with an interesting look into Canada’s manufacturing industry and at a famous Canadian family.
Founded in Ontario in 1847 by Daniel Massey (1798-1856), the Massey Company manufactured farm equipment. In 1891, this company merged with A. Harris and Son, a foundry business that had begun to make farm implements. The new Massey-Harris Company became Canada’s largest manufacturer of farm machines.
One device they produced was a reaping machine called a “binder.” Dictionaries define this binder as, “a machine that both cuts and binds grain into bundles.” The binder was invented in 1872 by Englishman, John Appleby.
Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang explains why First World War soldiers referred to cheese as Massey-Harris: “It is a pun on the Massey-Harris self-binder (an early combine-harvester); the reference is to the ‘binding’ effects of cheese on the digestive system.”
The verb, to bind, is from the Common Teutonic, bindan (to make fast with a tie). It entered Old English unchanged.
Following a second merger in 1953, this time with Harry Ferguson Limited, an English manufacturer, Massey-Harris became Massey-Harris-Ferguson. Eventually, Harris was dropped and the company was known as Massey-Ferguson.
Today, the name Massey Ferguson (no hyphen) endures, but the company is part of AGCO Corporation, an American agricultural equipment manufacturer founded in 1990. AGCO sells machines in 140 different countries through 5,000 dealers — an international company in every sense.
Members of the Massey family have made their mark in Canada. Charles Vincent Massey (1887-1967), Canada’s first native-born governor general, was the grandson of Hart Massey, brother of the implement company’s founder.
Raymond Hart Masssey (1896-1983) was Vincent Massey’s brother. He had a distinguished acting career which began in 1913. By the time of his death, he’d appeared in more than 70 movies and also starred in the Dr. Kildare TV series.
People named Massey may die, but the name lives on. In 1960, the Massey Foundation staged an architectural competition because Vincent Massey wanted a Toronto college that was like those where he’d studied in Oxford. Thus, Massey College opened in 1963.
Although affiliated with the University of Toronto, it is an independent institution.
Massey Hall, older than the college, opened in 1894, a gift to the city of Toronto from Hart Massey. Until the 1920s, this was Canada’s sole concert hall specifically built for musical performances. It has presented the world’s greatest performers, including Heifetz, Caruso and Paderewski. Massey Hall, somewhat overshadowed today by the newer Roy Thomson Hall, continues to stage musical acts.
Yes. Massey is a famous Canadian name, though it’s doubtful that Massey-Harris will ever be renowned as a slang term for ‘cheese.’
Note: A foundry is a plant for casting and moulding metals. Binder twine, an all-purpose cord that’s coarse, strong and twisted, was originally used to bind grain into sheaves, or bundles.