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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
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5 Answers 5

up vote 13 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
    
@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
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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
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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
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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
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