Monday 9 November 2009

Bob’s your uncle . . .

I use this expression infrequently but decided to try and discover its origins. Its meaning is obvious to those who have grown up with it in the British Isles and the Commonwealth– it simply means 'there you are', 'okay', 'it's done', 'it's simple'.

Quite why Bob is your uncle is another matter altogether.

There is a theory, not proven, that it arose out of an act of political nepotism. Robert Cecil, the Victorian Prime Minister Lord Salisbury, appointed his nephew, Arthur Balfour, Chief Secretary for Ireland in 1887.This was the most controversial in a series of posts and one which amazed the country for the young man, though intelligent, was a dilettante and seemed singularly ill-equipped for the job. In fact his sound performance confounded his critics. The British public concluded mischievously that to have Bob as your uncle guaranteed preferment and success.

The word 'nepotism', meaning undue favouritism to one's relations and close friends, is derived from the Latin nepos for nephew or nepot for grandson. Since Italian popes referred to their illegitimate sons as nephews and favoured them for promotion the link seems plausible.

However, the phrase was never used in satirical writings of the time and was not recorded until 1937 when it appeared in Eric Partridge's Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English.

The most likely and more prosaic explanation is that it derived from the 17th century phrase 'all is bob' meaning everything is in order, all is well.

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