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The meaning and origin of the expression: Bob's your uncle

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Bob's your uncle

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'Bob's your uncle'?

'Bob's your uncle' is an archetypically English phrase and is so familiar here for it to have spawned jokey variants. As 'take the Mickey' has an extended alternative 'extract the Michael', 'Bob's your uncle' is sometimes extended to 'Robert's your auntie's husband'. People in other English speaking countries won't be so familiar with the phrase, so I'll give some examples that may explain the meaning.

'Bob's your uncle' is an exclamation that is used when 'everything is alright' and the simple means of obtaining the successful result is explained. For example, "left over right; right over left, and Bob's your uncle - a reef knot" or, "she slipped the officer £100 and, Bob's your uncle', she was off the charge".

What's the origin of the phrase 'Bob's your uncle'?

'Bob's your uncle' is one of those phrases that keep etymologists off the street corners. Despite its having been the subject of considerable research, no one is sure of its origin. As with all such mysteries there are plenty of suggestions, but I'll limit things here to the most plausible two - the favourite and an outsider:

Bob's your uncle
Robert Gascoyne-Cecil
is believed to be the
source of the expression
'Bob's your uncle'.

1. The first idea, and one that many believe, is that Bob and his nephew were the Marquess of Salisbury and Arthur Balfour.

Like many Victorian aristocrats, Salisbury, the 20th British Prime Minister, didn't lack for names and his was as full as his beard - Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury. For our purposes we can cut that down to just 'Bob'.

Salisbury is widely believed to be the Uncle Bob that the expression refers to. 'Bob's your uncle' is said to derive from the supposed nepotism of Lord Salisbury, in appointing a favourite nephew, Arthur Balfour, to several political posts in the 1880s.

The meaning and origin of 'Bob's your uncle'.
Arthur Balfour -
the nephew half of the
expression 'Bob's your
uncle'.

Balfour went on to become Prime Minister after his uncle, His early political appointments were considered inappropriate as he had shown no prior interest in public work.

It is unlikely that Arthur Balfour would ever have become a celebrated politician without the patronage of his influential uncle. Piers Brendon, in Eminent Edwardians, 1979, writes:

"In 1887, Balfour was unexpectedly promoted to the vital front line post of Chief Secretary for Ireland by his uncle Robert, Lord Salisbury."

The link here between an uncle Bob who was Prime Minister and a 'Bob's your uncle' passport to a cushy life is easy to make. The fact that the word 'nepotism' derives from 'nephew' makes the link seem all the more neat. Such neatness is often the mark of a back-formation, that is, an explanation that is made up after the event.

Just as an aside, a variant of the phrase has been taken up by the Greek community in Australia. They use 'Spiro is your uncle' to denote nepotism there.

2. The other potential source is the music hall. The earliest known example of the phrase in print is in the bill for a performance of a musical revue in Dundee called Bob's Your Uncle, which appeared in the Scottish newspaper The Angus Evening Telegraph in June 1924.

Bob's your uncle
Florrie Forde - who
recorded the song 'Bob's
your uncle' in 1931.

The expression also formed part of the lyrics of a song written by John P. Long, and published in 1931 - Follow Your Uncle Bob. The lyrics include:

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

The song was sung and recorded by Florrie Forde, the celebrated music hall artiste of the early 20th century.

Eric Partridge lists it in A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, 1937. He states it as dating from circa 1890, although he presents no evidence for that.

The difficulty with the first suggested origin is the date. The phrase itself isn't recorded until the 1920s and doesn't begin appearing in newspapers until after WWII.

It would seem odd for a phrase to be coined about the nepotism of an uncle for his nephew well after both Prime Ministers were out of office.

This isn't the first time that an etymological outsider romps home when the favourite fell at the first fence. We don't know for sure but, based on current knowledge, this expression most probably came into being with Florrie Forde's song.

It is quite possible, likely even, that the lyrics alluded to the Balfour and his uncle. So, if that's the case, both suggestions could claim to have had a hand in the derivation of the phrase.