Word of the day: big cheese

At a party last week I was introduced to a foreign businessman who was visiting London. We got talking and started chatting about what we both did. I told him about my work and when I asked what he did, he responded – in excellent English – by saying: “I guess you could say I’m a big cheese in my local community” before adding “but this phrase was taught to me by a teacher forty years ago and as you’re an English teacher I’m sure you’re going to tell me that it’s something nobody says anymore – if, of course, they ever did!”

The first thing I told him was that students should always trust their teachers, as big cheese is still widely used. However, it’s rare to hear someone use it to talk about themselves. If you do, it sounds like you’re blowing your own trumpet – showing off and saying how great you are! If someone told me they’re a big cheese somewhere or other, there’d be a strong temptation to respond by saying ‘Even if you do say so yourself!

More often, we use it to describe others, so I might show a photo I took during our day out to friends back home and explain: “This guy here was some kind of big cheese in the local business world.”

Calling someone else a big cheese shows we think they’re important or powerful. We often use it when describing who people are, so we might say someone is a big cheese in the art worlda big cheese in politics or a big cheese in the film or fashion industry!

Sometimes it’s even used to suggest that someone isn’t really as important as maybe they think they are, so we might say someone is a big cheese ….. in a small town – in other words, a big fish in a small pond!

I guess you might be wondering how the man I met should’ve introduced himself, right? Well, if he’d wanted to be modest, he could’ve just said something like “I’m quite involved in business in my local area” or “I’m very active in the local business community”.

Discuss these questions.

  • Have you ever met anyone you’d describe as a big cheese? In what field?
  • Who was the last really interesting person you got talking to? Where did you meet? What did you talk about?
  • What do you usually tell people when they ask what you do?
  • Who was the last person you met who you thought was guilty of blowing their own trumpet?
  • Don you think it’s good to be modest – or is modesty overrated?

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