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This is one of those common phrases that I have never really questioned until now.

According to the free dictionary, "Big cheese" means an "important person".

But what on earth does "cheese" have to do with being important? Where did this phrase come from?

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Note the bad poetry that big cheeses have inspired. –  Robusto Aug 13 '12 at 16:00
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Here is an exhaustive explanation: worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-big1.htm –  BellevueBob Aug 13 '12 at 18:00
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I think the emphasis is more on "big" than on "cheese". Someone important can also be called a "big wheel," or a "bigwig," a "big gun," a "big shot," or the "big kahuna." Just a thought. I also wondered if there might be a link between big cheese and big wheel, since cheesemakers can make big wheels of cheese, but that's only a curiosity; I haven't researched it. –  J.R. Aug 15 '12 at 1:30

7 Answers 7

up vote 15 down vote accepted

It appears to be from Persian and Urdu.

http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/cheese--2?region=uk&q=big+cheese

noun
(in phrase big cheese) informal

an important person:
he was a really big cheese in the business world

Origin:

1920s: probably via Urdu from Persian čīz 'thing': the phrase the cheese was used earlier to mean 'first-rate' (i.e. the thing)

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+1 and I wonder if French 'chose' is in any way related. –  Barrie England Aug 13 '12 at 16:32
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@BarrieEngland Um, French chose < Latin causa. English cheese < WGer. *kâsi, adapted < Latin cāseus. Got an etymological dictionary for Farsi? I don’t. –  tchrist Aug 13 '12 at 20:07
    
The etymology of the standard English word "cheese" (fermented milk product) is irrelevant to the idiomatic "big cheese" - which as OED says, is "of doubtful origin; but prob. a. Pers. and Urdū chīz ‘thing’." And if French chose < Latin causa, that must also be unconnected. –  FumbleFingers Aug 14 '12 at 1:30

Green's Dictionary of Slang has big cheese as

(Originally U.S) and important person, an influential figure, a boss in a situation or job.

The earliest citation is from 1908, with another from 1913.

I have to say that this casts some doubt on the Urdu derivation, as American slang is not typically Anglo-Indian in origin. He also notes that an alternative meaning:-

(a) an unpleasant, incompetent, stupid person; usually ext. as big cheese, piece of cheese, plate of cheese, poor cheese etc.

whose earliest citation is 1864, or...

(b) as [above] but used jocularly or affectionately

Whose earliest citation is 1891.

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While big cheese may be American, the etymology of cheese in the expression still seems to have its origin in India by way of England. –  MετάEd Aug 17 '12 at 5:14
    
@MetaEd, the dates given by Quinion make it more probable. –  Brian Hooper Aug 17 '12 at 5:49

Robert Hendrickson, The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins (1997) gives an earlier date for "big cheese" in the sense of "important person" than either Green (cited by Brian Hooper) or Oxford Dictionaries (cited by Andrew Leach) give:

big cheese. A big cheese, for "a boss or important person," is an Americanism dating 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), "thing," that the British brought back from India in about 1840. A big cheese thus has nothing to do with cheese and should properly be "a big chiz."

Unfortunately, Hendrickson doesn't provide a citation for his "about 1890" date—or for any other date.

As for the origin of the British term the cheese, Farmer & Henley, Slang and Its Analogues (1891) offers this discussion:

Summing up the evidence, the expression—(barring a solitary reference in the London Guide of 1818, where it is referred to a bald translation of c'est une autre chose, i.e., that is another CHEESE, subsequently coming to signify that it is the real thing)—appears to have come into vogue about 1840. This contention is borne out in some measure by a correspondent to Notes and Queries (1853), I, S., viii., p. 89), 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. Yule, writing much later, says the expression was common among young Anglo-Indians, e.g., 'my new Arab is the real chiz,' i.e., 'the real thing,' a fact which points to a Persian origin.

According to Farmer & Henley, one of a handful of contemporaneous terms for an important person was "big bug":

BIG BUG, subs. [popular]—A person of standing or consequence, either self-estimated or in reality. A disrespectful but common mode of allusion to persons of wealth or with other claims to distinction. Variants are BIG-DOG, BIG-TOAD, BIG-WIG, and GREAT GUN.

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In early American history in the 1700's a group of farm families, including John Wells and his cheese-making wife Francis Brown Wells, from the Berkshires came up with a fun idea of creating a giant wheel of cheese to send Pres. Jefferson as a gift of congratulations. It was so big it had to be carted on a wagon. They were celebrating the election outcome. Pres. Jefferson is said to have received it at the front door of the White House and served it's remnants to opposing party guests long past it's prime. From the History of the Berkshires.

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This is certainly an interesting anecdote. But are you sure this story introduced the term "big cheese" into English? Many of the other answers cite a much later date for the first known use of that term. Also, I could not locate your source, History of the Berkshires. Could you provide more detail? –  Theodore Broda May 27 at 0:55

http://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/mammoth-cheese

Consider how this could have been portrayed by Jefferson's political opposition with some derision as they are wont to do...even to this day.

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Welcome to EL&U. Link-only answers are discouraged; please provide a suitable excerpt or explanation; the accepted answer suggests the expression has nothing to do with Thomas Jefferson. I encourage you to take the site tour and visit the help center for guidance. –  choster Nov 24 at 20:55

I suspect it comes from the British involvement in the Crimean war. A soldier would address an officer as 'sir', but sir is also Ukranian word for 'cheese'. Calling senior officers 'big cheeses' would have appealed to the foot soldiers sense of humour.

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Stuff and nonsense. Sir is not the Ukranian word for "cheese". The Ukranian word for "cheese" is сир, which is pronounced /sɨr/. Listen to it here. Sir in English is pronounced /sɜː(ɹ)/. It is completely and utterly impossible to draw any connection whatsoever between the two. And have you noticed that this question already has an actual answer? Please do not spam the site like that. Thank you. –  RegDwigнt Aug 9 '13 at 16:30

In every era and among every people since the race began we find men who leave the impress of their ^character on all associated with them. Men born to rule their fellows, and to mould the thoughts and opinions of state and nation. Such a man was Elder Leland ; not only in the sparsely settled districts of old Virginia where his influence was sought when a great measure was before the people, but also among the sturdy farmers of this little village, his political views were heartily and unanimously en- dorsed. A strong Jeffersonian himself, the whole people were admirers of Jefferson also. When he was chosen to fill the Presidential chair their exultation knew no bounds, and impelled by a desire to pay him some tribute of respect, the original thought occurred to them that from so fa- mous a dairying community what could be more appropriate than a mam-

86 ■ HISTORY OF CHESHIRE,

moth cheese, the result of their united contributions. In investigating the history of the manufacture of this cheese we find a diversity of opiniou as to the place of making, some of the older people claiming that the curd was mixed at Elisha Brown's, on the farm now occupied by William Bennet^ and there pressed, then brought down to Captain Daniel Brown's to be cured and dried. In support of this theory we copy from the Hampshire Gazette of September 10th, 1801, the following quaint account of its mak- ing and journey :

"And Jacknips said unto the Cheshireites behold the Lord hath pnt in a ruler over us that is after our own hearts. Now let us gather toti;ether our curd, and carry it into the valley of Elisha unto his wine press, and there make a great cheese, that we may make a thank offering unto that great man. Xow these sayings pleased the Cheshireites, so they did as Jacknips had commanded. And they said unto Darius, the son of Daniel, the prophet, make us a great hoop, four feet in diameter, and eighteen inches high, and Darius did as he was commanded, and Asahel and Benjamin, the blacksmiths, secured it with strong iron bands, so that it could not give way. Now the time for making the great cheese was on the 20th day of the seventh month, when all the Jacobites assembled as one man, every man with his curd except John, the physician, who said : ' I have no curd but I will doctor the Federalists, send them to me and I will cure their fedism,' but Jacknips said : ' Behold Frances, the wife of John the Hillite, she is a goodly woman and she is wont to make good cheese, now she shall be chief among women.' Now, when all these things were ready, they put it in Elisha's press — ten days did they press it ; but on the eleventh, Jacknips said unto the Cheshireites ' Behold, now let us gather together a great multitude and move it to the great house of Daniel, the prophet, there to be cured and dried.' Now Daniel lives about eight furlongs from the valley of Elisha. So they made a great parade and mounted the cheese on a sled and put six horses to draw it. And Jacknips went forward, and when he came to the inn of Little Moses he said unto Moses ' Behold, the great cheese is coming.' And Moses said unto Freelove his wife, • Behold the multitude advancing, now let us kill all the first born of the lambs and he goats and make a great feast.' And they did so, and the people did eat meat and drink wine, the fourth part of a hin each, so they were very merry. And Jacknips said : ' It shall come to pass when your children shall say unto you, what mean you by this great cheese ?' Ye shall answer them saying : ' It is a sacrifice unto our great ruler, because he giveth gifts unto the Jacobites and taketh them from the Fed- eralists.' And Jacknips said : ' Feradventure within two years I shall present this great cheese as a thank offering unto our great ruler,' and all the Cheshireites shall say ' Amen.' "

Others claim that it was brought to Daniel Brown's in the beginning, and we incline to this statement from the fact that Mr. Edmund Foster (grandson of Captain Brown) and others of equally good authority are posi- tive that such was the case. Each good wife set her milk in her own dairy and on the appointed day brought the curds, and there were mixed and salted by the most skillful dairy women. It was pressed in the cider-mill, and one month from the day of its making it weighed 1,235 pounds. From the fact that at a later period a larger cheese was made in the same town

FROM 1707—1807. 87

weighing about 1,400 pounds, doubtless arises the conflicting -statement. In the early fall the cheese was carefully packed and in the care and escort of Elder Leiand and Darius Brown, it was drawn to Hudson and from there shipped by water to Washington. Through the kindness of Mr. Daniel B. Brown (son of Darius), we arc able to give the presentation speech, and Jefferson's reply, from the original documents. The latter bear- ing the signature traced by the hand that penned the Declaration of Inde- jiendence, and struck slavery from the north western territory.

To Thomas Jeffemon, President of the United States of America : —

SiK : — Notwithstanding we live remote from the seat of our national government in an extreme part of our own state, yet we humbly claim the right of judging for ourselves. Our attachment to the national constitution is indissoluble. We consider it as a definition of those powers which the people have delegated to their magis- trates to be exercised for definite purposes, and not as a charter of favors granted by a sovereign to his subjects. Among its beautiful features the right of free suffrage, to correct all abuses, the prohibition of religious tests to prevent all hierachy, and the means of amendment whicli,it contains within itself to remove defects as fast as they are discovered, appear the most prominent. Such being the sentiments which we entertain our joy must have been exquisite on your appointment to the first office in the nation. The trust is great. Tlie task is arduous. But we believe the Supreme Ruler of the Universe, who raises up men to achieve great events, has raised up a Jefferson at this critical day to defend Kepublicanism, and to baffle the arts of aristocracy. We wish to prove the love we bear to our President, not by words alone but in deed and in trufh. With this address we send you a cheese, by the hands of Messrs. John Leiand and Darius Brown, as a token of the esteem which we bear to our Chief Magistrate, and of the sense we entertain of the singular blessings that have been derived Irom the numerous services you have rendered mankind in general, and more especially to this favored nation over which you preside. It is not the last stone of the Bastile, nor is it an article of great pecuniary worth, but as a free will offering, we hope it will be favorably received. The cheese was procured by the per- sonal labor ot freeborn farmers with the voluntary and cheerful aid of their wives and daughters, without the assistance of a single slave. It was originally intended for an elective President of a free people and with a principal view of casting a mite into the even scale of Federal Democracy. We hope it will safely arrive at its destined place, and that its quality will prove to be such as may not disappoint the wishes of those who made it. To that Infinite Being who governs the Universe we ardently pray that your life and health may long be preserved, that your usefulness may be still continued, that your administration may be no less pleasant to yourself than it is grateful to us and to the nation at large, aud that the blessings of generations yet unborn may come upon you. In behalf of ourselves, and our fellow citizens of Ches- hire, we render you the tribute of profound respect.

Jefferson's reply:

To Messrs Daniel Brown, Hezekiah Mason, Jonathan RirJiardson, John Waterman and

John Wells, Jun., a committee of the town of Cheshire, in Massoichusetts.

I concur with you in the sentiments expressed in your kind address on behalf of

the inhabitants of the town of Cheshire, that the Constitution of the United States is

a charter of authorities and duties, not a charter of rights to its officers, and that

88 HISTORY OF CHESHIRE.

among its mostpret-ious provisions are the right of suffrage, the prohibition of religious tests, and its means of peaceable amendment. Nothing ensures the duration of this fair fabric of government so effectually as the due sense entertained by the body of our citizens of the value of these principles and their care to preserve them. I receive vpith particular pleasure the testimony of good will with which your citizens have been pleas- ed to charge you. It presents an extraordinary proof of the skill with which those do- mestic arts which contribute so much to our daily comfort, are practiced by them, and i^articularly by that portion of them most interesting to the affections, the cares and the happiness of man. To myself, this mark of esteem from fi-ee born farmers, employed personally in the useful labors of life, is peculiarly grateful, having no wish but to preserve to them the fruits of their labor, their sense of this truth will be my highest reward. I pray you gentlemen to make my thanks for their favor accep- table to them, and to be assured yourselves of my highest respect and esteem.

Thomas Jeffekson.

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