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Big cheese

Q From Edward Teague: What is the origin of the term big cheese as in “He’s a big cheese in the rugby world”?

A The big cheese is the most influential or important person in a group, though it has often been used in a derogatory way to refer to somebody self-important. These days, it’s more than likely to appear as a joking reference to a real cheese, since its slang use is rare and definitely outdated.

There’s no shortage of expressions invoking cheese: one may be cheesed off (miserable, annoyed, fed up), or something may be cheesy (cheap, unpleasant or blatantly inauthentic). These refer to the unhappy habit of ripe cheese making its presence known to anyone within sniffing distance.

But big cheese has a quite different origin, based on the only positive slang sense of cheese that seems ever to have existed. This was first recorded in London in the nineteenth century, in forms like he’s the cheese, it’s quite the cheese, just the cheese, or simply the cheese, with the sense of a thing that was “good, first-rate in quality, genuine, pleasant or advantageous” as John Camden Hotten defined it in his Slang Dictionary in 1859.

Cries Rigmaree, rubbing her hands, “that will please —
My ‘Conjuring cap’ — it’s the thing; — it’s ‘the cheese!’”

The Ingoldsby Legends, by R H Barham, 1840. The Revered Richard Barham wrote the legends partly in verse, partly in prose, under the pretence that the antiquarian Thomas Ingoldsby of Tappington Everard in Kent was presenting old documents he had found. The resulting comic and grotesque retellings of medieval legends and tales of crime, witchcraft and the supernatural were first published in the magazine Bentley’s Miscellany from 1837 on. They remained highly popular thoughout the second half of the century — an edition of 1881 sold 60,000 copies on its first day.

Explanations of its origins were often ingenious rather than satisfying:

Just the Cheese. This phrase is only some ten or twelve years old. Its origin was this:—Some desperate witty fellows, by way of giving a comic turn to the phrase “C’est une autre chose,” used to translate it, ‘That is another cheese;’ and after awhile these words became “household words,” and when anything positive or specific was intended to be pointed out, “That’s the cheese” became adopted, which is nearly synonymous with “Just the cheese.”

Notes and Queries, 23 July 1853. The expression is rather older than the writer’s “ten or twelve years”, since the supposed French connection was floated as its origin in the London Guide in 1818. The French phrase means “that’s another thing”. As it happens, another writer in the same journal a month earlier had given what we now accept as the true origin.

Though it seems certain that it had nothing to do with a literal big cheese, Americans often offer one as its origin. This was the Mammoth Cheese that was created for president Thomas Jefferson by the staunchly Republican citizens of Cheshire, a community in western Massachusetts that, like its English county namesake, was famous for its cheese. A Baptist preacher named John Leland conceived the idea of making a vast cheese from one day’s output of the local cows. It turned out to be more than four feet in diameter and weighed 1,235 pounds (561 kg). It arrived at the executive mansion (not yet called the White House) on New Year’s Day 1802 and stayed on display for two years; it is said that slices of it were still being served to guests in 1805. In one episode of the US television series The West Wing appeared Big Block of Cheese Day, in which White House staffers met fringe groups that would not otherwise get a hearing; this refers to a later presentation of an even bigger cheese to Andrew Jackson in 1837; it’s said that he invited passers-by into the White House to sample it.

Notwithstanding this suggested American connection, the most probable source is the Persian or Hindi word chiz, meaning a thing.

The expression used to be common among Anglo-Indians, e.g., “My new Arab is the real chiz”; “These cheroots are the real chiz,” i.e. the real thing. The word may have been an Anglo-Indian importation, and it is difficult otherwise to account for it.

Hobson-Jobson, The Anglo-Indian Dictionary, by Sir Henry Yule and Arthur C Burnell, 1886. Sir Henry was primarily a historical geographer of central Asia and an expert in medieval travel writing. This huge work was therefore something of a sideline, which he completed after Burnell’s death in 1882. Its unique view of the everyday language of British officers in colonial India is so important to scholars that it has proved to be his principal legacy.

An expression with the same meaning that predated the real chiz was indeed the real thing, so it’s probable that Anglo-Indians changed thing to chiz as a bilingual joke. Once returnees from India started to use it in Britain, hearers naturally enough converted the unfamiliar foreign chiz into something more recognisable, and it became cheese.

The phrase big cheese developed from it in early twentieth-century America:

Roosevelt looks like the big cheese. He stands at the head of every preempted party and if the greatest care is not exercised a vote will be cast for him regardless of whether it is the intention or not.

Daily Independent, Monessen, Pennsylvania, 30 October, 1912.

It followed on several other American phrases containing big to describe a person of more than common importance, many with animal or vegetable associations — big bug, big potato, big fish and big toad, which may be echoes of the British English bigwig of the eighteenth century. More recent examples are big shot, big enchilada and big banana.

Like the others, big cheese was by no means always complimentary and often had derisive undertones, no doubt helped along by the influence of other slang meanings of cheese.

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Page created 12 Aug 2000; Last updated 04 Dec 2010