Thursday, September 14, 2006

The Daily Hump: Bob's Your Uncle

Sometimes humping an idiom can be just as fun as humping a word. In today's hump we look at Bob's your uncle. I first heard this phrase when I was 20 years old and working on an archaeological excavation in Wales. I don't remember the context of the usage but I do remember it was Graham from Birmingham (UK) who said it.

At the time I also remember not understanding, even from context, what the idiom meant. I didn't catch on until I came back to the US and started asking some of my British expat friends. Wikitionary defines the idiom rather staccato:
Things are as required, you have what you want, all will be well (appended to the end of a description of how to achieve something).

You want to go to the stadium? Go straight on until you reach the park, take the first left and Bob’s your uncle!
People (at least the ones I know) seem somewhat perplexed when it comes to the idiom's etymology. The theory I heard most often was that the phrase originated in the 1964 film Mary Poppins with a line spoken by Dick Van Dyke's character Bert:
When you're with Mary Poppins, suddenly you're in places you've never dreamed of. And quick as you can say "Bob's your uncle," the most unusual things begin to happen.
Of course, this theory is bunk as there's no character of Uncle Bob in Mary Poppins (just Uncle Albert) so the phrase obviously must have existed before 1964. Per Wikitionary, the idiom goes back to 1887 when Arthur Balfour was appointed Secretary of Ireland by his uncle, the prime minister, Robert (aka Bob), Lord Salisbury.

But there's a problem with the Wikitionary etymology; the phrase wasn't recorded in the English language until 1937, in Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English. Patridge claims the idiom has roots going back to 1890 but offers no evidence and none has been uncovered. As World Wide Words notes:
A rather more probable, but less exciting, theory has it that [Bob's your uncle] derives from the slang phrase all is bob, meaning that everything is safe, pleasant or satisfactory. This dates back to the seventeenth century or so (it’s in Captain Francis Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue of 1785). There have been several other slang expressions containing bob, some associated with thievery or gambling, and from the eighteenth century on it was also a common generic name for somebody you didn’t know. Any or all of these might have contributed to [Bob's your uncle's] genesis.
Bob's Your Uncle [Wikitionary]
Bob's Your Uncle [World Wide Words]
Mary Poppins (script) [IMSDB]


:: posted by David, 8:31 AM


I remember that part in Mary Poppins. And right after that, Bert trips over the ottoman and Laura helps him up.
Blogger Loocite, at 11:54 AM  

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