As far as English idioms go, you can’t get one more classic than ‘Bob’s your uncle’.
- Can you tell me how to get to the station?
- You want to go straight until you read the main road, take the first right, and Bob’s your uncle – you’re there!
But who exactly is Bob and from where did the saying originate?
Etymologists are largely left scratching their heads over the origin of this very British idiom, but here are a few popular theories:
- The most popular theory comes straight out of Victorian aristocracy and politics. When British Prime Minister Robert Gascoyne-Cecil appointed his not-so-qualified nephew Arthur James Balfour as Minister for Ireland in 1887, it raised a few eyebrows at the suggested nepotism. Following his appointment, Balfour was said to have referred to Gascoyne-Cecil as ‘Uncle Bob’ and thus, the idiom was coined.
- This next interpretation uses the phrase ‘all is bob’ or ‘all is well’ as a launching point. Located in Captain Francis Grose’s 1785 text Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, 'bob' was a slang word referring to a shoplifter's assistant.
A shoplifter’s assistant, or one that receives and
carries off stolen goods. All is bob; all is safe.
This term ‘bob’ was also used more generally as a generic name for a person, such as ‘Jack’, ‘Jill’ and to use a contemporary example, ‘John Doe’.
- The final theory to explain the origin of this idiom comes from a Scottish newspaper. The phrase ‘Bob’s your uncle’ was first found in print in The Angus Evening Telegraph in June 1924. It was in reference to a musical revue called Bob's Your Uncle that had taken place in Dundee. During the performance the expression was used in a song, which was written by John P Long:
Bob's your uncle
Follow your Uncle Bob
He knows what to do
He'll look after you
While the final theory came about many years after theories one and two, it carries strength because the print evidence in the newspaper is the only concrete record of the phrase’s existence. Lexicographer Eric Partridge listed ‘Bob’s your uncle’ in his 1937 A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, dating it to around 1890, though he gives no actual evidence to support that.
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