You know the presidential oath by heart, I’m sure: “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of big cheese of the United States, and will to the best of my ability…”
Although we don’t use this expression much anymore, the president has been referred to as the big cheese. Or course, we may use the term to refer to anybody who is in charge, or who we consider a “big shot.” If you work for a company, you may call the CEO the big cheese. What is the origin of this nickname?
Well, you cannot believe everything you read on the subject. For example, consider one of the worst food history books in existence: Cuisine and Culture by Linda Civitello. Although it contains many entertaining tidbits, the author was quite willing to just accept myth as historical fact, as she did when she related an oft-told American legend that relates the presidential term “big cheese” to an actual hunk of cheese:
The story claims that on New Year’s Day, in 1802, a giant wheel of cheese was delivered as a gift to President Thomas Jefferson. It weighed 1,235 pounds and four feet in diameter. It claimed to have required 900 cows to assist in its production.
The cheese had come from the citizens of Cheshire, Massachusetts, a region known for its cheese. The idea, however, for the cheese had come from a Baptist preacher named John Leland. Printed on the cheese was “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.”
The cheese was displayed at the Executive Mansion (not the White House as it was not yet called this in those days) for two years, and people traveled, it is said, from far and wide to see it. Slices of the cheese were supposedly still being served to guests in 1805! Must have been ripe! And this is how the president became the big cheese. But not really.
Oddly enough, this was not the only giant cheese given to a U.S. President. President Andrew Jackson was gifted an even bigger one in 1837. Jackson is said to have invited passers-by into the White House to have a sample of it. And people complain about President Obama tweeting and being on reality TV. Maybe they are just upset he hasn’t invited them in for cheese.
Although I never watched the show, Author Michael Quinion in Why is Q Always Followed by U? mentions the television series The West Wing, and its Big Block of Cheese Day. On this day, the White House staff met with fringe groups that would not normally get a hearing from the White House. This is supposed to refer Andrew Jackson’s giant cheese.
None of this, however, is likely to be the origin of the big cheese expression. We usually invoke cheese in a pejorative sense, as when something is cheesy, for a more archaic expression, when we are cheesed off. But expressions like the cheese, he’s the cheese or it’s quite the cheese were used in London during the 19th century to refer to something good. It is likely that the American expression big cheese derived from the British expression meaning the best, high quality, or top-notch.
There are several fanciful tales of the British expression’s origin, but one of the most popular among etymologists is that it was an importation from the British occupation of India. There is an Urdu/Hindi/Persian word chiz which simply means “thing” or “object”. The English expression “the real thing” had already existed before the Indian influence so it is said that British soldiers in the days of the Raj simply adopted the word chiz for thing as in he’s the real chiz or its the real chiz to mean the real thing or the real deal.
Since the word sounds a bit like cheese it is thought that English speakers simply changed the word to something they were familiar with, so chiz became cheese, to combine the expression with the earlier cheese expressions noted above.
How this came may have come into America is unclear, but expressions like big shot, big fish were already in use. There were even odder ones like big toad or big potato. Later, big banana and big enchilada were added. We still have the older British expression bigwig. We Americans have always liked to make everything big, after all. With so many variations, cheese is not such a stretch, but we cannot be sure of its true origin. It does seem likely that the tradition of giving giant wheels of cheese to U.S. presidents has nothing to do with it.
The earliest use of the cliche big cheese in literature is perhaps in a short story (unfinished) by O. Henry, from 1910 called the Unprofitable Servant. In it, the author describes a vaudeville dancer named Del Dalano who ‘crawled from some Tenth Avenue basement like a lean rate and had bitten his way into the Big Cheese…He had danced his way into health (as you and I view it) and fame in sixteen minutes.’ Here, cheese seems to be used in the literal sense and big cheese is meant to refer to wealth and social status, or those who have it. Since O. Henry was such a popular writer, many sources claim that he invented the expression and that is took off from there.