10 Humorous, Derisive, or Slang Synonyms for “Leader” or “Official”

By Mark Nichol

Sometimes it just won’t do to be sober and serious when referring to someone in authority. These terms help convey an irreverent tone about a lordly leader or an officious official.

1. Big cheese: Interestingly, this slang phrase for an important person has nothing to do with dairy products; derived from a Persian word, chiz, that means “thing,” it was adopted by British civil servants and others who lived in India during the early nineteenth century, whence it spread to Britain and other English-speaking countries.
2. Big wheel: This slang term for an influential person probably derives from the idea that such a personage, like the wheels on a vehicle, facilitates progress (and the bigger, the better).
3. Bigwig: This word for an important (and self-important) person likely stems from the custom in European countries several hundred years ago of men wearing wigs: Some wealthy and/or powerful men tried to outdo each other by wearing outsize specimens and so were mocked as bigwigs.
4. High muck-a-muck (or high muckety-muck, muckety-muck, muck-a-muck, or mucky-muck): These terms refer to a haughty personage.
5. Honcho: This slang term for a leader, especially a business executive, derives from the Japanese term hancho, which refers to a squad leader in a military unit.
6. Kahuna: This Hawaiian word originally applied to influential members of native society, but it entered general usage when, in the mid-twentieth century, surfers began to refer to the best among them as kahunas or big kahunas.
7. Kingpin: Several theories exist about the origin of this word for a leader, especially one in a criminal enterprise, but it most likely derives from the idea of a key component in a machine. (An alternate possible origin is the name for the pin at the apex of an array of pins in bowling games; if you strike the kingpin, presumably all the other pins will fall. But the analogy of a part holding a machine together is stronger.)
8. Mandarin: This word, ultimately derived from the Sanskrit term mantra — yes, that mantra — originally came from a Portuguese word referring to Chinese officials. (Portugal was among the first Western nations to have any influence in China.) By extension, it applies now to bureaucrats, especially officious ones, though it also connotes an influential member of the intelligentsia or the literary elite, especially a conservative one.
9. Panjandrum: This coinage by eighteenth-century playwright and actor Samuel Foote refers to a powerful or pretentious official or other person of influence.
10. Pooh-bah (or grand pooh-bah): A pooh-bah — the word is inspired by the name of an arrogant character from the Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera The Mikado whose impressive string of official titles terminates with “Lord High Everything Else” — is an influential person or one holding multiple offices.

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8 Responses to “10 Humorous, Derisive, or Slang Synonyms for “Leader” or “Official””

  • Bill

    Many of these were used in a funny scene in “Airplane!” The scene included “top dog,” I believe, which probably comes from sled teams.

  • DHH

    El Jefe—Spanish for boss or chief.

  • Mark Nichol

    A reader pointed out that I neglected to provide the origin of one of the list items: “High muck-a-muck” and its variations are derived from Chinook Jargon, a Native American pidgin developed in the nineteenth century. The term hayo makamak referred to an important banquet and, by extension, the eminent attendees sitting in places of honor.

  • thebluebird11

    Yes, I was going to ask about the origin of that term (muckety-muck etc).
    Also, as far as the kingpin thing. In bowling, the front pin is usually called the head pin. I have been bowling since about the time I could stand up, and here in the US, east coast at least, I haven’t heard it called the kingpin (or king pin). Maybe it is called that in other parts of the US, or in other countries. Or maybe you meant linchpin? Still, when you think of organizations and kingpins within them, a bowling analogy would make sense, in that by taking down the kingpin, you would cause the whole organization to collapse. However, you would do need to do it just right! In bowling, if you don’t hit the head pin just right, you end up with very, very ugly results LOL A little Brooklyn, a little Jersey, but never head on!

  • Bob E Sherman

    In Brazil I was known as “manda chuve” [rainmaker]

  • Dale A. Wood

    We ought to mention these from American TV series:

    The “Imperious Leader” of the Cylons of the original TV series of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, from about 1980 – 83.

    The “Fearless Leader” of Pottsylvania in the animated TV series about Rocky the Flying Squirrel, Bullwinkle the Moose, Boris Badenov, and Natasha Fatale. This series had more than one name, and it was broadcast on more than one network, but most of us just all it “THE ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE SHOW”.
    Note that “Pottsylvania” was an unspecified Eastern European country with Nazi and communist influences, but the very name of it is a contraction of the name of a real place in the United States: Pottstown, Pennsylvania, which isn’t too far from Philadelphia.

    “Mr. Big” was also a character in THE ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE SHOW. The joke about him was that he was actully very small, but he took a big flashlight with him, and he was usually seen as his large shadow cast on the wall.

    Then there came another “Mr. Big” in a different context in the TV series SEX AND THE CITY.

    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    The concept of “top dog” in dogsled teams is true, but there are also top dogs in wolfpacks and in packs of wild dogs. It is a well-known concept among canines.

    Also, authorities on canines state that dogs have an affinity for human beings before this. Beginning millions of years ago, young wolves and wild dogs were taken in and raised by humans. Those animals have the instinct for recognizing and obeying their superiors, and so they perceive their masters and mistresses as being their “top dog” – especially since human beings are larger than puppies and we can give them spankings!

    I might be old-fashioned, but to me the male owner of a dog is its “master”, and its female owner is its “mistress”. We establish ourselves as the dog’s superior, and dogs recognize this. Most dogs are also intelligent, and they learn things like to come on command, to sit, to lie down, to roll over, and even to bark on command.
    Some people do not like this, and they prefer cats.

  • Dale A. Wood

    More on TV:
    In THE FLINTSTONES, Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble belonged to a lodge, all male, of men from Bedrock.
    The great leader of the lodge was called THE GRAND POO-BAH.
    So, there is an example of that term.

    In one episode, Wilma Flintstone and Betty Rubble decided to disguise themselves as men and to try to join the lodge. (So, there was a little of “The Merchant of Venice” in the plot, re: Portia and her friend.)
    Little did Wilma and Betty know that part of the initiation ceremony involved the present members lining up to give vigorous spankings to the new pledges. Ouch!

    By the way, THE FLINTSTONES was the first animated TV show that was made for showing in “prime time” TV in North America. It was not a Saturday morning cartoon show for kids at first, and it was not a syndicated show like THE ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE SHOW or CLUTCH CARGO. I used to watch CLUTCH CARGO, SPACE ANGEL, POPEYE THE SAILOR MAN, etc., on TV during the after-school hours of about 3:30 to 5:00 Central Time. We also had shows that ran a lot of THE THREE STOOGES in the short films from the 1930s and ’40s. Would you believe that some of those got nominated for Academy Awards in the short film categories? The Academy used to have two categories of those that were called “one reel” and “two reel” short films – and you just have to understand the technology to know what those terms meant.
    D.A.W.

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