Green’s Dictionary of Slang

big cheese n.

also big smell, big sugar, cheese, head cheese, main cheese

1. an important person, an influential figure, a boss in a situation or job; also attrib.

[NZ]Observer and Freelance (Wellington) 5 Sept. 4/2: What attraction is there for Ken at the manager’s? Is it to see that big cheese?
Guilelmensian (Williams Coll.) 289: His Old Man was the Big Cheese in the Cross-roads where he lived, and Harold, being quite the Dip with the girls, cut a Left Swath in his Native Hamlet.
[US]F. Hutchison Philosophy of Johnny the Gent 79: ‘[T]hem big cheese coppers thinks nobody’s hep to them’.
[US]B. Fisher A. Mutt in Blackbeard Compilation (1977) 128: A swell little broiler will call this big cheese ‘baby doll.’.
[US]J. London Valley of the Moon (1914) 175: The Head Cheese sizes me up, pumps me a lot of questions, an’ gives me an application blank.
[US]R. Lardner ‘Horseshoes’ in Coll. Short Stories (1941) 250: It went the full seven games and every game was a bear. They was one big innin’ every day and Parker was the big cheese in it.
[US]‘Ellery Queen’ Roman Hat Mystery 119: Are you the big cheese around here?
[US]H. Miller Tropic of Cancer (1963) 22: Elsa is the maid and I am the guest. And Boris is the big cheese.
[UK] (ref. to 1920s) L. Duncan Over the Wall 279: Did the main cheese really believe he could get away with that?
[US]C.B. Davis Rebellion of Leo McGuire (1953) 19: Maybe the big cheeses are crooks all right.
[US]D. Runyon Runyon à la Carte 127: Tell the cheese of police goodby for me, Finnegan, and the same to you.
[Ire]J.P. Donleavy Ginger Man (1958) 165: I’ma porter there. That’s the big cheese.
[Aus]D. Niland Gold in the Streets (1966) 208: Showing me the haunts [...] knocking me down to the big smells.
[UK]Daily Express 15 Oct. 19/4: As soon as you become to feel a bit of a cheese you become a bad magistrate [OED].
[UK]P. Theroux Murder in Mount Holly (1999) 85: But you’re the big cheese, Charlie [...] Me and Mrs Gneiss are nothing. You’re the one who makes the rules.
[US]L. Rosten Dear ‘ Herm’ 242: When this was discovered by a big cheese in the Swiss bank, poor Czermak killed himself.
[US]I. Doig Eng. Creek 291: Major Evan Kelley [...] The big sugar, over in Missoula.
[UK]A. Sayle Train to Hell 32: Apparently he’s a big cheese at these football knowledge quizzes they have.
[UK]Indep. Rev. 21 Oct. 3: Perhaps the oddest usage is ‘the big cheese’ to mean ‘the boss’ of an outfit.
[UK]N. ‘Razor’ Smith Raiders 36: He assumed that the man must be a big cheese in the bank.

2. (US) an affectionate term of address for a fool.

[US]S.V. Benét Young People’s Pride 60: You mean you were asleep, you big cheese!
[US]R.E. Howard ‘Champ of the Forecastle’ Fight Stories Nov. [Internet] Havin’ licked the big cheese three or four times already, I seen no need in mauling him any more.