Bob’s your uncle
One of the many delights of the English language is its variety of idioms and idiosyncratic phrases. I find I pepper my speech with them without giving a second thought as to where they came from.
A popular phrase in my family was “Bob’s your uncle”, used to signify that everything will be all right, as in ”do this, then that, then Bob’s your uncle”. My brother and I used to modify it to Robert is your father’s brother and so on but you get the gist.
So where does it come from?
There are three possible origins. Firstly, it may refer to the supposed nepotism of Lord Salisbury, Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, who in the 1880s appointed his favourite nephew, Arthur Balfour, to a number of political posts. Arthur went on to become British Prime Minister but his initial appointments caused a stir because hitherto Balfour had shown no interest in public life. So “Bob’s your uncle” could signify nepotism and a passport to a cushy life, a possibility reinforced by the Greek community in Australia using “Spiro’s is your uncle” in a similar context.
A second possibility owes its origin to the slang expression of all is bob meaning all is well. This first appears in print in 1785 in Francis Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, in which he cites, “a shoplifter’s assistant, or one who receives and carries off stolen goods. All is bob, all is safe”. Nathan Bailey’s Dictionary of Canting and Thieving Slang of 1721 (surely a wildfire success) defines a bob as a shoplifter. In Victorian public school slang bob was used to mean an unspecified person.
The third possibility is music hall. The earliest printed example of the phrase is an advert for the musical review, Bob’s Your Uncle, which appeared in the Angus Evening Telegraph in June 1924. The phrase appears in a song recorded in 1931 by the celebrated music hall artiste, Florrie Forde, and written by John P Long, which includes the lines, “Bob’s your uncle/ follow your uncle Bob/ he knows what to do/ he’ll look after you”. In my view this just confirms that the phrase relates to nepotism rather than pointing to a new or different source of the phrase.
Eric Partridge in his Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English dates the phrase back to the 1890s but adduces no evidence. If that were true, then it would give more credence tot he Salisbury/Balfour theory. Although it is far from certain, I am attracted to the theory that it relates to Lord Salisbury’s acts of nepotism particularly as there is a corresponding phrase down under. Still, you pays your money and takes your choice. Now, where did that come from?…