One of the mysteries of the English language finally explained.
1British US Originally and chiefly US. A large sum of money, especially one thousand (occasionally one million) dollars or (British) pounds; a note of large denomination. Also (usually plural): one dollar or (British) one pound.
2US Originally US. With the. Something regarded as important and decisive, or as the most significant, substantial, or influential of its kind; especially a factor, event, opportunity, etc., of great potential or consequence.
3A war, originally specifically the Second World War (1939–45), now frequently a prospective nuclear war. Hence: a major military incursion or assault.
4A major disaster, specifically a (prospective) large-scale earthquake.
Mid 19th century; earliest use found in Tom Taylor (1817–1880), playwright and comic writer. From big + one.
big one/ˈbɪɡ wʌn/
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