Category Archives: On the radar

“Bob’s Your Uncle”

English reader John Barrett reports that in an episode of “Marvel: Agents of Shield,” the (American) character Phil Coulson says, “Bob’s your uncle.” John elaborates:

It was the last episode and he was describing how his team were [I told you John is English] supposed to infiltrate HYDRA headquarters, but his plan ran out of steam rather quickly and he ended with “ Bob’s your uncle!”

I’ve heard it rather too often in project meetings down the years – it’s often an euphemism for the cloud on the board marked “And then a miracle happens.”

My favourite was about 20-odd years ago, a hardware engineer (ex-RAF, which probably explained a lot ) was showing me a piece of networking equipment which one “plugs into the old wossname, hit the tit and Bob’s your uncle.”

The OED defines the phrase as “everything’s all right,” and though (or maybe because) it’s a quintessential Britishism, it’s shown up rather frequently in American pop culture, at least according to the Wikipedia hive:

In Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011), Benji Dunn uses the expression to cap his quick summary of Ethan Hunt’s plan to intercept the nuclear code transaction….

In the NCIS episode entitled “Truth or Consequences,” Agent Anthony DiNozzo uses the phrase to explain the unspoken communication between Agent Gibbs and Director Vance.

In season 11, episode 15 of the animated cartoon TV show The Simpsons, titled “Missionary: Impossible,” Homer uses the phrase when talking with Reverend Lovejoy…

In Monk, season 8, episode 7, “Mr. Monk and the Voodoo Curse,” Lieutenant Randy Disher explains how a victim named Robert died: “He opens the box, sees the doll, Bob’s your uncle, his heart just stops.” After that, Captain Leland Stottlemeyer ribs him, asking if that is a real phrase, or if he made it up; Disher protests that it’s an Australian figure of speech.

The origins of the phrase are murky. The OED doesn’t give any etymology, and the ones I’ve seen on Wikipedia and elsewhere are unconvincing, partly because they cite 19th century happenings and the phrase didn’t pop up till the 1930s.

And in this regard I believe I have a contribution. The OED’s first citation for “bob’s your uncle”  is 1937, from Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang. Subsequently, Stephen Goranson found a 1932 use and posted it to the American Dialect Society listserv. After poking around a bit, I found something even earlier: a song called “Follow your Uncle Bob, Bob’s your uncle.” The U.S. Library of Congress lists this as having been “written and composed by John P. Long, of Great Britain,” and copyrighted December 2, 1931.


Update: That’ll teach me to brag. Since posting this, I have learned that Gary Martin, who blogs as The Phrase Finder, has found an even earlier use. He writes: “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.”

I await an update of the OED entry. In the meantime, here’s a clip of Florrie Florde singing “Follow Your Uncle Bob”:

“Taking the Piss”

Longtime friend of NOOBs Wes Davis reports that when he saw Todd Snider in concert recently, the (American) singer said something about “extolling the virtues of taking the piss out of anyone who extols virtues.”

The OED defines “to take the piss (out of)” as: “to make fun (of), to mock, deride, satirize.” One doesn’t come across the expression very much in the U.S. The only time it has appeared in the New York Times (other than readers’ online comments) was in a quote from “a British newspaperman,” in a 2006 article about Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz’s  approach to Formula One racing– ”He’s taking the piss out of the sport because the sport is very up itself.” (Note to self: find out what up itself means.)

The author Bill Bryson, who deserves (if he doesn’t actually have) dual U.K.-U.S. citizenship, has observed, of Americans: “Wit, and particularly the dry, ironic, taking-the-piss sort of wit, was completely beyond them. (Do you know that there isn’t even an equivalent in American speech for ‘taking the piss’?) Yet here in Britain it is such a fundamental part of daily life that you scarcely notice it.”

I’m not so sure if Bryson was taking the piss, or not, which may prove his point.


A “trainers” with an asterisk

Today’s New York Times has a fashion article titled, “Sneakers: Where Can’t They Go?” It’s about the trend of wearing sneakers in formal setting. You can already see one of the literary challenges faced by the writer of the article, Susan Joy: trying to avoid writing the word “sneakers” too many times. Joy, regrettably, was not fully up to the challenge. The brief article contains eighteen sneakerses, plus one in the title and one in a photo caption.

But she does make a couple of efforts to avoid the word, as in this sentence: “A quick scroll through the street-style blogs yields scores of shots of fashionable women looking confident and cool in their high-tech trainers and multicolor mash-ups.”

A couple of years ago, I promoted trainers from “Outliers” status to “On the Radar.” Roy’s use of it, being so obviously by way of avoiding writing “sneakers” yet again, is not enough to convince me to elevate the word to full-fledged NOOB.


“Crisps,” “Builder”

In the last couple of weeks, I came upon two examples of a not uncommon phenomenon: an American, writing for an American publication, using an obvious Britishism when writing about Britain or a Briton. You might call it protective coloration, or going native. The first one was in a New Yorker article by Elizabeth Kolbert in which she describes what she finds in a parking lot (which she does not call a car park) near her airport hotel at Heathrow: “empty water bottles, crumpled candy wrappers, crushed soda cans, half-eaten packages of crisps.”

Of course, crisps is the word British people use for what Americans call potato chips or chips (which is what British people call what Americans call french fries or fries). But, as a matter of fact, crisps has been worming its way into AmE of late, specifically for products that are more off-beat than your typical Wise or Lay’s potato chips. This one, for example:


So I will categorize crisps as “on the radar.”

The other example came in a New York Times obituary of “Micky Lay, a bibulous retired builder who helped Mark Rylance craft his performance in Jez Butterworth’s hit play about British outcasts, ‘Jerusalem.'” The relevant term is builder. In the U.S., that word is used pretty much exclusively by newspapers in describing people like Donald Trump–that is, real estate developers.

In Britain, the OED says, “As the name of a trade, builder now denotes the master artisan, who receives his instructions from the architect, and employs the masons, carpenters, etc., by whom the manual work is performed.” That is what Americans would call a “contractor.” But I believe that British builder also refers to a lower-level laborer, what we call “construction worker.” I await enlightenment on this point.

Builder has made some inroads into the youth of America via the animated children’s series “‘Bob the Builder,” which has aired here since 2001. Some of the kids who watched it back then have grown up by now. But I don’t see any evidence of builder being used here in the British sense. That may have to do, unfortunately, with our construction slump. It’s not a job with great prospects, so no one under thirty has much reason to talk about it.


John Polk (@ClichesGoneWild) noted on Twitter yesterday, “‘Chuffed’ means pleased… or displeased. Not helpful when a word is its own antonym.”

I was only familiar with the “pleased” meaning but the OED confirms that “displeased” is a legitimate thing, as in this from David Storey’s 1960 “This Sporting Life”: “I felt pretty chuffed with myself.”

I was inevitably prompted me to check chuffed (with either meaning) for NOOB-ness. A quick search of the New York Times archives suggests it deserves On the Radar status, but only in the positive sense (I couldn’t find a single example of the other one).

Most recently, Deb Amlen wrote last month in  Times crossword blog, Wordplay: “I was also pretty chuffed at the beginning because I was able to fill in so many of the long answers.” I’m not 100% sure that Amlen is American, but her online bio confirms residence (and suggests, to me, birth): “She lives in New Jersey with her family and her Extremely Spunky Border Terrier™, Jade.”

The word also appears in a Times article earlier this year about a “adventure design camp” in Texas: “For this camp, Mr. Dyer had made a massive, lusty grill from rusted steel pipe, after a design sketched by the chef Rene Ortiz. It was the first thing he had made besides fence work, and he was pretty chuffed about it.”

For the next Times use (by a non-Commonwealth speaker), you have to go back to a 201o post in the Dealbook blog: “And it seems that Ms. [Cara] Goldenberg does indeed feel chuffed about the meeting [with Warren Buffett].”

What will allow chuffed to rise above the radar? Well, my attention will be caught if I see it used in a U.S. source preceded by one of the customary British modifiers, well or dead. I’m not holding my breath.

“Go to Ground”

The New York Times’ redoubtable media columnist, David Carr, has provided material for this blog before, and he does so again in today’s paper. Referring to a supposed video of the showing the mayor of Toronto smoking crack, Carr writes, “By then the people who had claimed to have the video had gone to ground.”

My NOOB-dar whirred into action at that phrase gone to ground, with which I was not familiar but which had an unmistakable British sound to it. A look at the OED confirmed the suspicion; but even better, it’s a fox-hunting reference. I had hit some kind of jackpot.

The dictionary dates the phrase to 1797 and defines it as when the fox runs

into a burrow or hole in the ground, ‘to earth’… Also to lie at ground  . to go to ground  : also said of a dog. Also in other phrases, and fig. (of a person), to withdraw from public notice and live quietly or ‘lie low’

All citations are from Commonwealth countries and all  refer foxes or other animals until a 1964 quote (with telltale quotation marks, indicating newness): “The four men ‘went to ground’, probably in Johannesburg.” The expression appears currently to be popular in a sporting context, as in this quote from a 2009 Times rugby article originating in New Zealand: “But on defense, he is less assured and at times puts his team under pressure by offloading when it would be better to go to ground and set up the next phase of play.”

Note that this is different from the American expression “to run [something] into the ground,” meaning to destroy or ruin it by over- or misuse. Someone quoted in 2009 by the N. Y. Times’ Dealbook blog (unclear if he is British or American) seems to have confused the two: “Reuters’s Robert MacMillan argued that by letting the story of The [Boston] Globe’s possible demise leak, The [New York] Times may be betting that a white knight will emerge — ‘someone who fulminates long and hard about civic responsibility and not letting a hallowed journalistic institution go to ground.’”

I’m going to classify the David Carr/fox-hunting go to ground as “on the radar” rather than “outlier” because I found a couple of other uses in the Times in the past several months. Interestingly, they both came from members of the intelligence community, and it makes sense that it would have become popular in a world where people are, frequently, compelled to go to ground. In April, Philip Mudd, “a former senior C.I.A. and F.B.I. official,” referring to a Boston Marathon bombing suspect, said, “He’d get nervous and turn himself in, or he could go to ground.” And in February, Michael R. Shurkin, “a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst,” said, “Are they going to dig in and be guerrillas or go to ground and wait?”


I was perusing Twitter the other day when this turned up in my news feed (written by an American):

Luxembourg must be cross that the UK gets to provide the social services and they collect the taxes from amazon:…

The OED  defines cross in this sense as “Ill-tempered, peevish, petulant.” All the citations are British, including Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813): “I have never had a cross word from him in my life.”

This is certainly not an unknown word in the U.S. But it is an old-fashioned one, with a rather twee feel to it. Dawn Powell used it (along with a similarly antique verb form) in her 1944 novel My Home Is Far Away: “In the morning he was cross if they waked him.” I associate the word with bordering-on-precious children’s books, as in anthropomorphic bears and ducks who are cross if they don’t get their porridge on time.

As the tweet suggests, the word appears to be getting some broader currency, in part because of the current appeal of NOOBs and in part because it occupies a useful spot on the ever-wider spectrum of annoyance, along with irked, frustrated, and pissed off.

In June 2012, a writer for observed, “Trying to understand all this made me cross.” And health policy expert Uwe E, Reinhardt wrote in the New York Times in March 2013: “I wouldn’t be surprised if the New Jersey hospital industry was cross at me and the commission for our role in the passage of Assembly Bill.”

My favorite recent American use comes from blogger Everett J. Smith, who titled a recent post post, simply, “The Pope Makes Me Cross.”