the big cheese

Today’s meaning: the most important person in an enterprise or anything first-rate in quality.

In earlier times the cheese didn’t have to be big — ‘the cheese’ alone was a synonym for quality. As for the origin of this term in Britain, Farmer & Henley, Slang and Its Analogues (1891) offers this: “The term appears to have come into vogue about 1840. This contention is borne out in some measure by a correspondent to Notes and Queries (1853), who speaks of it as about ‘ten or twelve years old,’ a calculation that carries it back to the date when it appears to have started in literature.”

For example, ‘that’s the Stilton’ meant the same as ‘that’s the cheese.’

Eventually ‘the cheese’ crossed the Atlantic to the USA, and there it got big. The first written reference there to ‘big cheese,’ meaning wealth or fame, comes from O. Henry (William Sydney Porter) in Unprofessional Servant, 1910.

A ‘big cheese,’ meaning a boss or important person, dates back to about 1890. But it derives from the British expression the cheese, meaning “the thing or the correct thing, the best.” The British expression, in turn, is a corruption of the Persian or Urdu chiz (or cheez), meaning ‘thing,’ that the British brought back from India in about 1840.

It is quite likely that the American usage was influenced by the many real ‘Big Cheeses’ that were produced for display in the early 1900s in the USA – some of which were vast. Overlarge wheels of cheese, especially from Wisconsin, were commonly displayed as publicity stunts by retailers. The Country Gentleman, on Oct. 28, 1911, commented:

“The cheese will be on exhibition at the National Dairy Show at Chicago next week. President Taft will visit the show the morning of Monday, October thirtieth, and after his address he will be invited to cut the big cheese, which will then be distributed in small lots to visitors at the show.”

Synonyms for ‘the big cheese,’ meaning important person, are: big bug, big dog, big shot, bigwig, big gun. These are often used to describe a person of consequence, either self-estimated or in reality.

And ‘cheese’ has been and is used in other ways as well. We now use ‘cheesy’ to describe anything second-rate, artificial or even smelly, which is almost completely opposite to the original meaning of cheese.

 ‘Cheese it’ means: stop what you’re doing, be silent. We tell people to say “cheese” when we want them to smile for the camera. We say “cheesed off” when we mean ‘annoyed.’

When I say ‘cheese,’ though, what I mean is the Cheddar in the fridge and I want some on a crisp cracker.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: