Stories behind Words: Bob’s your uncle

Posted by on October 09, 2013

www.wordle.netThere has been a lot of speculation over the years about the origins of the phrase Bob’s your uncle, but the fact is that no one knows whose uncle Bob was, or why he should have lent his name to an expression that means something will be very easy or quick to do. Various 19th century public figures have been put forward to explain the phrase’s origin, but there is no contemporary evidence whatsoever to support any of these explanations.

The first citation of the phrase in OED refers to an entry in Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang, 1937; but Partridge cannot shed much light, beyond claiming that it has been used since ca. 1890 and speculating that it may be an elaboration of the ‘low-slang’ phrase all is bob, meaning ‘all is safe’. The slangy nature of the phrase is highlighted in the earliest written citation, a book review in the Observer newspaper in 1932 which refers disapprovingly to the ‘strident liveliness’ of an author who uses it. The poet Stephen Spender (1946) believed the expression to be cockney, though it’s unclear on what grounds.

Bob was used from the 18th century as a generic name for a man (similar to Tom, Dick and Harry). Meanwhile, uncles are often seen as benevolent and potentially generous  figures. These elements, combined with the ‘all is well’ meaning, may go some way to explaining the phrase’s origin, though the actual story behind Bob’s your uncle seems destined to remain a mystery.

Browse the archive of Stories behind Words and get in touch if you’d like to suggest a word/phrase for the series. We’d love to hear from you!

Comments (3)
  • Sorry, but you don’t explain what the expression means or give examples. Could you do that, please? many of your readers are non-native and I had never heard this expression before.
    Thank you

    Posted by Isabel Esteva on 15th October, 2013
  • Hi Isabel, thanks for your comment.
    The meaning of the expression is given in the post: “an expression that means something will be very easy or quick to do”. (It is also given in the dictionary entry that you get if you click on the link). The MED entry has one example; here are a couple more:

    They’re so easy to cook – you just pop them in the oven for a couple of hours and Bob’s your uncle.
    Rally up the troops and find 9 people who need a lift out the airport and, Bob’s your uncle, $5 per person.
    Attach the setup to a 3/8″ rod, insert into mill and bobs your uncle, you now have a 3D printing machine.

    Posted by Liz on 16th October, 2013
  • […] took on Okie uptalk. At Macmillan Dictionary blog, Liz Potter related the story behind the phrase Bob’s your uncle, and Stan Carey wondered if banning slang was […]

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