phrases, sayings, idioms and expressions at

Phrases, Sayings and Idioms Home > Discussion Forum

Re: Say 'UNCLE'

Posted by Bruce Kahl on January 25, 2001

In Reply to: Say 'UNCLE' posted by John Hoeksema on January 25, 2001

: Anyone know where the phrase 'Say Uncle' meaning 'I give up' came from?

It seems that while "crying uncle" is today regarded as an Americanism, its origins go all the way back to the Roman Empire. Roman children, when beset by a bully, would be forced to say "Patrue, mi Patruissimo," or "Uncle, my best Uncle," in order to surrender and be freed.
As to precisely "why" bullies force their victims to "cry uncle," opinions vary. It may be that the ritual is simply a way of making the victim call out for help from a grownup, thus proving his or her helplessness. Alternatively, it may have started as a way of forcing the victim to grant the bully a title of respect -- in Roman times, your father's brother was accorded nearly the same power and status as your father. The form of "uncle" used in the Latin phrase ("patrue") tends to support this theory, inasmuch as it specifically denoted your paternal uncle, as opposed to the brother of your mother ("avunculus"), who occupied a somewhat lower rung in patrilineal Roman society.

from the Word Detective.com