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How “The Big Cheese” Joined the English Language. Christina Salmon January 27, 2007. Cheese Origins. The word “cheese” is derived from the Latin word “caseus.” Some of the earliest references to cheese mention this food as “compressed curds of milk.”. Phonetic Implications.

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cheese origins
Cheese Origins
  • The word “cheese” is derived from the Latin word “caseus.”
  • Some of the earliest references to cheese mention this food as “compressed curds of milk.”
phonetic implications
Phonetic Implications
  • The English word cheese begins with a voiceless alveopalatal affricate. This “ch” sound is problematic for native speakers of Chinese and French.
esol considerations
ESOL Considerations
  • French students may have extra difficulty with this word as the “ch” and “long e” sounds are not in their language. French students will know this word as “fromage.”
  • Ironically, the “long e” sound is also a problem English sound for native speakers of Urdu, the origin of “the big cheese.”
cheesy expressions today
Cheesy Expressions Today

The word “cheese” has found its way into many common expressions we use today, which may be more difficult for ESOL students to understand.

To introduce this concept, have students identify common expressions using the word “cheese.” (Expression Activity)

say cheese
“Say cheese!”
  • Because this word contains the phoneme /i/, it causes your lips to be stretched to resemble a smile.
the cheese stands alone
“The Cheese Stands Alone”
  • This phrase comes from the children’s singing game, The Farmer in the Dell, where the last person standing outside of a circle is the “cheese.”
the big cheese origins
“The Big Cheese” Origins
  • Big cheese = comes from the Urdu word chiz which means “thing”
the real thing
The Real Thing…
  • The expression “thereal thing” was used in the 1800’s in India. It is suggested that it was changed to “thereal chiz” as a bilingual joke.
the real chiz
The Real Chiz…
  • “Thereal chiz” was a common expression used by Anglo-Indians. Sir Henry Yule described the expression in his Anglo-Indian dictionary, Hobson-Jobson in 1886.

“My new Arab is the real chiz.”

the real cheese
The Real Cheese…
  • As Pakistani and Anglo-Indians moved to Britain, listeners changed the uncommon “chiz” to a more familiar word, “cheese”.
the cheese
The Cheese…
  • In William Makepeace Thackery’s book, Codlingsby, (1850) two characters shared this dialogue:

“You look like a Prince in it.”

“It is the cheese.”

cheese in the 20 th century
Cheese in the 20th Century
  • 1903 = the main cheese
  • 1914 = the real cheese…

the head cheese…

the big cheese!

language pride
Language Pride

By teaching children that many of our English words come from other languages, ESOL students will feel proud of their heritage and culture.

the big cheese today
“The Big Cheese” Today
  • Have students read the Time for Kids article, “Call Her the Big Cheese” to see how this expression from 1914 continues to exist in our culture today. Have students respond to this journal write using what they have learned:

Explain why you think the author decided to title her article, “Call Her the Big Cheese.”

idioms and expressions
Idioms and Expressions

Teaching children the history of the phrase “the big cheese” can lead into a lesson on idioms.

To introduce the concept of an idiom, have students visit the website “Idioms by Kids” to see illlustrations of various idioms.

other activities
Other Activities
  • Have students visit the Funbrain website and play “Paint By Idioms” to practice using idioms.
  • Ongoing Activity: Have students look for other examples of “thebig cheese” or other idioms in books and magazines.
uncommon expressions today
Uncommon Expressions Today

If you are “cheesed off,” you are angry or upset.

uncommon expressions today1
Uncommon Expressions Today

Some students ride the “cheese wagon” to school.

uncommon expressions today2
Uncommon Expressions Today

People might call a good-looking man a “beefcake” and an attractive female a “cheesecake.”

uncommon expressions today3
Uncommon Expressions Today

“Making cheeses” (1855) is the act of twirling around and then sitting quickly so that your skirt spreads around you to resemble a cheese wheel.

  • Harper, D. (2001). Retrieved January 17, 2007, from Online Etymology

Dictionary Web site,

  • Lanetz, E. (2006, September 6). Make Cheese. A Dress A Day.

Retrieved January 21, 2007, from

  • Metcalf, A. (1999). The World in so many Words: A Country by Country

Tour of Words that have Shaped our Language. Boston: Houghton

Mifflin Company.

  • Quinion, M. (2000, August 12). Big Cheese. Retrieved January 22, 2007,

from World Wide Words,

  • Weiss, L. (2005, January 14). Call Her the Big Cheese. Time for Kids.

Retrieved January 21, 2007, from,6277,1016074,00.htm