"Big cheese” was a popular slang term in the 1900s, almost two decades before the “Big Apple” became popular in the 1920s. “Big cheese” is cited in print from at least 1906 and 1908 in the sense of “an important person” ("a big shot"), but “big cheese,” if used today at all, is mostly satirical.
Several word researchers derive “big cheese” from chiz—a word from India meaning “thing.” There is no reason to suppose that the users of “big cheese” in the 1900s and 1910s were at all familiar with the word “chiz” (or “cheese” as an English slang word), and there is not one citation that mentions both “chiz” and “big cheese.” It is claimed that “chiz” went from India to Great Britain—where “chiz” was converted into “cheese” and “big cheese”—and then to America. However, “big cheese” is an American slang term not attested in Great Britain in the same time period of the 1900s-1910s.
It is most likely that the slang term “big cheese” derives from, literally, a big cheese. In 1802, President Thomas Jefferson received a mammoth Cheshire (MA) cheese in the White House. This started a tradition of dairies producing and displaying their big cheeses. There are numerous citations of newspaper articles about big cheeses in the 1800s and early 1900s.
The Phrase Finder
The big cheese
The most important person.
In earlier times the cheese didn’t have to be big - ‘the cheese’ alone was a synonym for quality. We now use cheesy to describe anything second-rate, artificial or even smelly. Going back to the 19th century the meaning was just the opposite. ‘Cheese’ or ‘cheesy’ is listed in John Camden Hotten’s The Slang Dictionary, 1863 as:
“Anything good, first-rate in quality, genuine, pleasant or advantageous”
Hotten also mentions that ‘chiz’ is used in the Hindostanee and Persian languages - meaning ‘thing’. He also records ‘that’s the Stilton’ as meaning the same as ‘that’s the cheese’.
Early in the 20th century the cheese crossed the Atlantic to the USA, and there it got big. The first reference there to ‘big cheese’ meaning wealth or fame comes from ‘O. Henry’ (William Sydney Porter), in Unprofessional Servant, 1910:
“Del had crawled from some Tenth Avenue basement like a lean rat and had bitten his way into the Big Cheese… He had danced his way into fame in sixteen minutes.”
‘Big cheese’ in the ‘important person’ sense comes a little later. The earliest I’ve found is from The Olean Evening Times, June 1922,
World Wide Words - Big Cheese
Originally it had nothing to do with cheese — the source is the Persian or Hindi word chiz, meaning a thing. Sir Henry Yule wrote it up in Hobson-Jobson, his famous Anglo-Indian Dictionary of 1886. He said that the expression “used to be common among Anglo-Indians” and cites expressions such as “My new Arab is the real chiz” and “These cheroots are the real chiz”. Another expression with the same meaning that predated the real chiz was the real thing, so it’s highly 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 word into something more recognisable, and it became cheese.
The phrase big cheese developed from it in early twentieth-century America, as a term to describe the most influential or important person in a group. The first written example we know about is in Ring Lardner’s Haircut of 1914.
CHOW (June 15, 2007)
The Big Cheese
The origins of your favorite food idioms
By Michele Foley
3. The big cheese. It’s got nothing to do with a dairy product. According to Sir Henry Yule’s 1886 Hobson-Jobson: The Anglo-Indian Dictionary, the expression derives from the Persian or Hindi word chiz, meaning quite simply a thing. Yule explains that Anglo-Indians might say something like “Lauren’s sister is the real chiz.” Brits living in India adopted the term, converting chiz into something more English. The idiom hit American shores in the 20th century. Americans seem to have a habit of putting big before nouns to convey wealth and power—the big enchilada, the big kahuna, the Big Apple. The first recorded examples of the big cheese being used to describe a person of important status began appearing in print around 1910.
Wikipedia: Cheshire Mammoth Cheese
The Cheshire Mammoth Cheese was a gift from the town of Cheshire, Massachusetts to President Thomas Jefferson in 1802. The cheese was created by combining the milk from every cow in the town, and made in a makeshift cheese press to handle the cheese’s size. Upon the cheese was inscribed the Jeffersonian motto, “rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.”
The story of the mammoth cheese inspired many future events. President Andrew Jackson’s supporters commissioned a similar cheese for consumption in 1837, as his supporters believed that “every honor which Jefferson had ever received should be paid him.” This event later became the inspiration for a recurring event on the White House television drama The West Wing, entitled “Big Block of Cheese Day.” The cheese inspired a critically acclaimed work of fiction, The Mammoth Cheese, by Sheri Holman in 2004 and published by the Grove Press, which told the story about a small town cheesemaker convinced by her pastor to make a giant cheese for the President-elect. The cheese also became the subject of a children’s picture book published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, A Big Cheese for the White House, by Candace Fleming. Today a cast concrete cheese press stands in Cheshire. A plaque dedicated to Leland is affixed to it.
(Historical Dictionary of American Slang)
big cheese n. the most important or influential person; boss; BIG SHOT.—often used derisively. See also CHEESE, n.
1914 in R. Lardner Haircut 144: They was one big innin’ every day and Parker was the big cheese in it.
1923 S.V. Benet Wisdom 233: The other guy’s the big cheese.
1924 Dialect Notes V 289: The big cheese, n.phr. An important person.
1928 Treadwell Machinal 500: You and the big chief...You and the big cheese.
1929 “E. Queen” Roman Hat ch. viii: Are you the big cheese around here?
1929-30 J. T. Farrell Young Lonigan 102: He had licked Weary Reilley and become...a big cheese around Indiana.
1931 Dos Passos 1919 257: he started to say something sarcastic about the big cheese, as he called him.
1934 H. Miller Tropic of Cancer 20: Elsa is the maid and I am the guest. And Boris is the big cheese.
1952 Bissell Monongahela 209: You’re the big cheese, it’s all up to you.
Main Entry: big cheese
: boss , big gun
(Oxford English Dictionary)
Wealth and fame (quot. a 1910). Also, an important or self-important person (freq. the big cheese). Usu. derogatory. slang (chiefly U.S.).
a1910 ‘O. HENRY’ Unprof. Servant in Wks. (1928) 805 Del had crawled from some Tenth Avenue basement like a lean rat and had bitten his way into the Big Cheese… He had danced his way into..fame in sixteen minutes.
1920 WODEHOUSE Coming of Bill I. iv. 44 The bunch of cheeses ought to have been highly grateful to Mrs. Dingle for her anti-pugilistic prejudices.
1934 R. CHANDLER in Black Mask July 64 So the big cheese give me the job. 1939 L. H. GRAY Foundations of Lang. 31 He’s the big cheese.
1961 J. MASTERS Road past Mandalay xii. 136 ‘Where’s the manager?’ ‘The manager?’ ‘The Bara Sahib. The Big Cheese. The Boss.’ ‘The Brigadier is out.’
1965 Daily Express 15 Oct. 19/4 As soon as you become to feel a bit of a cheese you become a bad magistrate.
27 July 1906, Los Angeles (CA) Times, pg. I1:
HE’S “BIG CHEESE”
Suspicion Attaching to Harriman;
Atty. Samuel Untermeyer of New York Attacks Wells-Fargo Management;
Asserts It Is One-Man Corporation and E. H. Is That “One Man.”;
Believes Misstatements Have Been Made to Depreciate Value of Stock
5 September 1908, Chicago (IL) Daily Tribune, “In the Wake of the News,” pg. 11:
Baseball heroes tread upon each other s heels so fast that it Is rather a tax on the human mind to recall who was the big cheese the day before yesterday.
14 December 1908, New York (NY)
“AH—GO ON YOU’RE A BIG CHEESE!”
TO EXPRESS YOUR OPINION OF THE POLICE!
September 1909, The Railroad Telegrapher, pg. 1517, col. 2:
Bro. Pinkston, formerly the “big cheese” at Trinchere, is at present employed by the Cedar Hill Coal and Coke Co. and J. G. Church is agent at Tranchere.
29 December 1910, Bellingham (WA) Herald, pg. 10:
Joe Reiley, the big cheese of the stock company now playing at the Beck, has to slip something over on the bunch next week.
December 1911, Everybody’s Magazine, pg. 790:
The Complete Writings of O. Henry
Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page and Company
THE UNPROFITABLE SERVANT
[Left unfinished, and published as it here appears in Everybody’s Magazine, December, 1911.]
Del had crawled from some Tenth Avenue basement like a lean rat and had bitten his way into the Big Cheese.