A big cheese is the head man or woman, the most important person of the group, the person who commands the most influence. This peculiar phrase invoking the word cheese probably stems from borrowing the Hindi word chiz from India. Chiz translates as thing. In nineteenth-century Britain, a slang term for something that was genuine or first-rate was referred to as the real thing. As British and Indian culture bumped against each other, the word chiz became a substitute for the word thing in the phrase the real thing. Eventually, the word chiz morphed into the English word cheese, and the phrase evolved into the idiom the real cheese. Early in the twentieth century, the phrase migrated to America where it evolved once again into the phrase the big cheese, referring to the top man or woman, the most important person.
‘I am the big cheese! She is, there’s a lot of yin and yang and opposites, good and bad, and I’m the good one, the opposite of [Hugh’s] character.’ (The Daily Mail)
The Big Cheese of Lackawanna County government apparently spent his own cheddar to send himself and his family to a November business conference in Hershey. (The Times-Tribune)
The Quarterback, who is “the big cheese, the main man,” might also have some ideas. (The Daily Herald)
So naturally she sued the board, contending she’s the big cheese. (The Arizona Republic)
Set up by Hayley Harthern, aka ‘the big chief’, and supported by the knowledge and expertise of her father, aka ‘the big cheese’, the company is now looking to grow throughout the UK by setting up a number of franchises in popular hot spots. (The Guardian)