He’s no fun, he fell right over.
Dear WD: While visiting my relatives in Western New York, my sister (who is a “Big Wheel” in the local historical society) made the claim that the term “Big Wheel” had local (Niagara County) origins, originating from a local upper class club of rich guys who liked to ride the Pennyfarthing-type bicycles – the ones with the big front wheel. The name of the club was the “Big Wheels” – and since they were upper-crust/rich/important, etc., a member of the “Big Wheels Club” got to be known as a “Big Wheel,” hence “Big Wheel” meaning an important person. Is there any truth to this story, or is it just another interesting but untrue piece of lore? — Bob Trapasso.
I’ll take Number Two, Bob — “Just another interesting but untrue piece of lore.” But before we delve into the wonderful world of wheels-as-cultural-metaphors, a word about the “pennyfarthing” bicycle. As you say, the term refers to the old-style bicycle, popular in the 19th century, which had a very large front wheel, no gears or chain, and a very small rear wheel. Don’t go looking for the Mr. Pennyfarthing who invented the device, folks — the name refers to the relative sizes of the wheels (the British penny of that time being quite a bit larger than a farthing).
There are several little problems with the story your sister has heard about “big wheel.” (Notice how diplomatic I am? If your sister is anything like mine, I’d suggest you follow my example when you explain this to her.) First, “big” has been a common American synonym for “important” since the early 18th century. “Big wheel” is just one of many slang terms for someone important that have cropped up over the last 200 years, “big shot,” “big cheese,” “big chief,” “Mr. Big” and “big wig” being notable examples. So we didn’t need a bicycle to equate “big” with “powerful.”
Ordinarily, I’d be willing to believe that there was such a Ritzy Riders Club in your sister’s town way back when, and that someone might have made a pun about the “big wheels” riding “big wheels,” thus providing at least a partial basis for the story. But there’s a problem with that, too. The phrase”big wheel” isn’t found anywhere in print until 1927, and didn’t become popular slang until the 1940’s, long after the last pennyfarthing bicycle was consigned to a museum. So they might have been called “Big Shots on Bikes,” but probably not “Big Wheels.”