Bob’s Your Uncle

This choice of idiom was inspired by one of my twitter followers, a certain @DadaMamA3. I’m sure you’d like to visit their page to congratulate them.

Used to describe the means of straightforwardly obtaining a successful result, as has so often proven the case I found not one but three plausible explanations for the origin of the expression.

On a first interpretation it derives from the British Prime Minister Lord (Robert) Salisbury, who appointed a favourite nephew, Arthur Balfour, to several political posts in the 1880s. As ‘The Phrase Finder’ explains:

‘Balfour had considerable talents and went on to become Prime Minister himself, but his early political appointments were considered inappropriate as he showed no interest in public work and at the time preoccupied himself with philosophy and an active social life. It is unlikely that Arthur Balfour would ever have become a celebrated politician without the patronage of his influential uncle. The link here between an uncle Bob who was Prime Minister and a passport to an easy life is easy to make.’

Yes it’s easy. Perhaps a little too easy…

A second interpretation has that it the phrase derives from the slang term ‘all is bob’, meaning ‘all is well’. That term is listed in Captain Francis Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, 1785:

A shoplifter’s assistant, or one that receives and carries off stolen goods. All is bob; all is safe.

The slang word ‘bob’, with the ‘shoplifter’s assistant’ meaning, had been in circulation for some years at that time and is defined as such in Nathan Bailey’s Dictionary of Canting and Thieving Slang, 1721.

The third potential interpretation is in a music hall 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.

The difficulty with the first two suggested origins is the date. The phrase itself isn’t known until the 1930s. It would seem odd for a phrase to be coined about the nepotism of an uncle and nephew long after both prime ministers were out of office and politically irrelevant. The ‘all is bob’ origin is from a century or so earlier and appears to have little reason the be connected to ‘bob’s your uncle’ other than that they both contain the word bob.

By means of conclusion, we side therefore with the last and decidedly least exciting suggestion. Now I just need to work out where on earth ‘Fanny’s your aunt,’ might have come from and I’m laughing. It’s going to be a nightmare teasing that one out though. Imagine it – pretty much all of my searches will return things like, “my aunt’s fanny,” or, “want some fanny?” etc. etc. What can men do against such reckless hate?



Filed under Idioms & Their Origins

4 responses to “Bob’s Your Uncle

  1. Everyone should have an Uncle Bob! I always wondered where that expression came from.
    Great post!

  2. Perhaps it inspired the movie “What about Bob” lol.

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