a big bug
Posted: 23 June 2007 06:42 AM   [ Ignore ]
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where does this phrase come from? are there any synonyms for it?

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Posted: 23 June 2007 07:17 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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I tried to google to provide some context on this one as Dr. T did on your last post, but to no avail.

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Posted: 23 June 2007 07:27 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Yes, we need some context to help you. What does the phrase mean? How is it used? Where did you run across it?

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Posted: 23 June 2007 10:44 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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I ran across it several times. But right now I can give such a context:
“You’d have been surprised at the fuss they made over here when Ted died. I knew they thought a lot of him, but I never knew he was such a big bug as all that. The papers were full of him...” (From “Cakes and Ale” by W.S. Maugham).
Once I came across this phrase in the meaning “big boss” with the synonym “big cheese”.

[ Edited: 23 June 2007 10:48 PM by Victorine ]
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Posted: 24 June 2007 05:50 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Got it. Big bug is a slang term, very common in the 19th century, especially in the US but also in the UK, meaning an important person, an aristocrat. The Historical Dictionary of American Slang has a cite for big bug dating to 1817. The OED2 has plain bug, meaning an important person, from 1771. So both your uses of important person and boss would fit.

It’s a bit uncertain as to whether this particular usage comes from the sense of bug meaning an object of terror, from the Middle English bugge, or whether it comes from the sense meaning insect, which is of unknown origin.

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Posted: 24 June 2007 01:41 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Victorine mentions “big cheese”. I wonder how far back that goes. As I recall, there was an Italian journalist who at one time (not for very long, I suspect) used to refer to Mussolini as “Il Provolone”. Any connection, I wonder? Does anyone have any facts?

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Posted: 24 June 2007 02:21 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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OED:

cheese, n. 2

[Of doubtful origin; but prob. a. Pers. and Urdu chīz ‘thing’. Yule says such expressions used to be common among young Anglo-Indians as ‘My new Arab is the real chīz’, i.e. ‘the real thing’.]

1. The right or correct thing: applied to anything good, first-rate in quality, genuine, pleasant, or advantageous.
1818 Lond. Guide (cited in Slang Dict. 1873). [...] c1850 THACKERAY Codlingsby iii, ‘You look like a Prince in it, Mr. Lint’.. ‘It is the cheese’, replied Mr. Lint.

2. Wealth and fame (quot. a 1910). Also, an important or self-important person (freq. the big cheese). Usu. derogatory. slang (chiefly U.S.).
a1910 ‘O. HENRY’ Unprof. Servant in Wks. (1928) 805 Del had crawled from some Tenth Avenue basement like a lean rat and had bitten his way into the Big Cheese… He had danced his way into.. fame in sixteen minutes. 1920 WODEHOUSE Coming of Bill I. iv. 44 The bunch of cheeses ought to have been highly grateful to Mrs. Dingle for her anti-pugilistic prejudices. [...] 1965 Daily Express 15 Oct. 19/4 As soon as you become to feel a bit of a cheese you become a bad magistrate.

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Posted: 25 June 2007 04:54 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Bigwig?

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Posted: 25 June 2007 05:50 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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It’s on the Big List.

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Posted: 25 June 2007 08:19 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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Fwiw, my mother (in her 80s) still says someone’s “a big bug” in business.

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Posted: 25 June 2007 08:31 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Bugs are not necessarily big. Fans of Nigel Molesworth, the St Custard’s schoolboy, hero of some of the funniest books in the English language, will recall that first-years at St Custard’s were referred to as ”new bugs”. This site says the author of the Molesworth books, Geoffrey Willans, made the expression up, but the DNB says he was a prep school master (ie, for Americans, taught at a private school for seven to 11-year-olds) before he became a full-time writer, and went to prep school and then public school (ie “private school” for 11-year-olds upwards) himself. (The DNB is subscription only, so I’m quoting rather than linking)

Willans, (Herbert) Geoffrey (1911–1958), humorist, was born on 4 February 1911 ... He was educated at Glyngarth preparatory school in Cheltenham and, from 1924 to 1929, at Blundell’s School, Tiverton. After leaving school Geoffrey Willans spent a period as a preparatory-school master at Woodcote House School in Surrey, before being able to make a living from journalism.

Very likely Willans picked the phrase up from one or other of those schools. The OED finds the expression in use before Nigel Molesworth first appeared in 1952, under the entry for bug(2), with a quote from the Doors of Perception man - who was the son of an assistant master at Charterhouse School, and an ex-Eton schoolboy, and who would thus have been exposed to plenty of public-school slang himself ...

c. Schoolboys’ slang for ‘boy’; usu. with defining word, as day-bug ... 1936 A. HUXLEY Eyeless in Gaza vi. 63 It really wasn’t right to treat New Bugs the way he did as though they were equals.

Certainly this reminiscence from the 1939-45 war (see paragraph four) suggests “new bug” (or new-bug) was in regular use in British public schools.

Eventually, presumably, thanks to the benefits of a public school education, new bugs grew up to be big bugs ...

[ Edited: 25 June 2007 09:06 AM by Zythophile ]
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