Bob’s Your Uncle!

By Maeve Maddox

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An expression I learned to love during the time I lived in England was “Bob’s your uncle!” Thanks to international sports events, the saying is better known in the States now than it used to be.

You tack it onto a set of instructions that are meant to lead to an easy solution:

Question: How do I make this work?
Answer: Put Tab A into Tab B, turn this little screw, and Bob’s your uncle!

Question: Can you direct me to the Green Man?
Answer: Carry on to the corner, turn right, go past the greengrocer’s, turn right again, and Bob’s your uncle!

The expression’s origin is shrouded in mystery.

A frequent explanation cites the nepotism of British Prime Minister Robert Cecil, Lord Salisbury, who appointed his nephew Arthur Balfour to the post of Chief Secretary for Ireland in 1887. The idea is that if your uncle happens to be the Prime Minister, anything is easy. The difficulty with this explanation is that the earliest known use of the phrase “Bob’s your uncle” is from 1932.

Another possibility offered is that it may derive from 18th thieves’ slang: “all is bob,” meaning “all is safe.”

The Phrase Finder suggests that a music hall song published in 1931 may have been the source:

Bob’s your uncle
Follow your Uncle Bob
He knows what to do
He’ll look after you

I think it’s more likely that the song derived from the saying.

We’ll probably never discover the origin of this delightful expression. Its lack of discernible sense suggests an origin in the folk etymology that causes a misheard foreign word or phrase to dwindle into pronounceable English nonsense. For example:

hocus-pocus: a scrambled version of Latin Hoc est corpus meum, “this is my body,” words from the Catholic Mass
kickshaw: English approximation of French quelque chose, “something” (A kickshaw is a doodad, a whatnot, a thingamajig, a something or other.)
Smackover: Arkansas place name thought to be from French chemin couvert, “covered way”
love: tennis score notation (meaning “zero”), from French l’oeuf, “egg” (the shape of a zero resembles that of an egg)

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9 Responses to “Bob’s Your Uncle!”

  • Jennifer Oliver

    A friend of mine had her own variation of the saying, and that was “Bob’s your aunt’s live-in lover”. I always liked that. 🙂

  • Justin Hillier

    I’m not sure if it’s a common addition to the original, but when someone say’s “Bob’s your uncle”, friends and I always reply “and Fanny’s your auntie”. Maybe somebody can elighten me?

  • Allison Gillespie

    My French teacher (Miss Stark) told me the story of the British Tommies (soldiers) during the First World War. If they wanted something done in a hurry, they would use a corruption of ‘Tout de suite’ (immediately), eg ‘Give me that bag, and the tooter the sweeter.’

    I much enjoy your daily writing tips.

  • ApK

    I happen to like the Prime Minister nepotism origin, if that stuff about Robert Cecil and his nephew is true. There are lots of valid reasons why the expression may not have been documented, or indeed even widely used for 50 years.
    Not that I have any additional evidence or would place a high wager on it, just that I do not see the time span as strong evidence against it.

    Some one needs to do some exhaustive reasearch on this. Maybe I can apply for a grant.

  • Charlie

    According to a Brit friend, the end to the phrase is “and Charley’s your aunt.” Is there history for that floating around?

  • Andrew Toynbee

    A variation on ‘Bob’s Your Uncle’ that I heard many times in the RAF was;
    ‘Bob’s your Auntie if he knows a good surgeon.’

    A little bit of polish on the old cliche!

  • Andrew Toynbee

    Couldn’t ‘Charley’s your Aunt’ have stemmed from the theatre play ‘Charley’s Aunt’ where the Aunt was always played by a man?

  • Lesley

    An Aussie variation is: “A slash and a cut and Bob’s your auntie”.

  • Ken Khelah

    Now that’s a handy expression.

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