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.