“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 “and..er.. 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.

#Micdrop.

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”:

24 responses to ““Bob’s Your Uncle”

  1. This is one of a few phrases that have stuck with me after being brought up by English parents. In fact, it’s hard not to say it when reassuring someone that with this step and then that step, everything will fall into place. I once asked my uncle about the possible origin, and he suggested it came from an Australian cricketer, which seems to be almost certainly not the case.

  2. I had always understood that the phrase originated when Balfour succeeded Salisbury as Prime Minister in 1902 (given that Robert, Marquess of Salisbury, was Balfour’s uncle). But given that the earliest citations are from the 1930s this does seem implausible.

    • But as the earliest known citations are the title of a play and of a song, this suggests the phrase was very well known by that time. The playwright or lyricist must have been making a reference that they expected would be widely recognised.

      It is the sort of phrase that would not be used in any formal writing, so a lack of earlier written citations does not mean it was not in common oral use.

  3. I heard a version for these wild, liberal times:
    ‘…and Bob’s your auntie’s live-in lover”.

  4. Nick L. Tipper: Edited for more wild and liberal: “Bob’s your uncle’s live-in lover.”

  5. Yes, it sounds very dated, 30s-style. Doubt if many people under 70 would use it. Probably not many would know it (but might understand it from context) except as a joke or Dick Van Dyck-ism.

    • Actually I hear it a lot (south-east England) from all ages. Wags (I mean waggish people, not WAGs) sometimes expand it to “Robert’s your mother’s brother”. These are the same people who say “extracting the Michael” instead of “taking the mick”, or indeed “extracting the urine” instead of “taking the piss”. Not uncommon among builders and blokes who come to fix your guttering.

      • Rosalind… you are me and I claim my £5.

      • Can Catherine please explain the 5 pounds reference?

      • I refer you to Wikipedia: “Lobby Lud is a fictional character invented in August 1927 by the Westminster Gazette, a British newspaper, now defunct. The name derives from the paper’s telegraphic address, “Lobby, Ludgate”. Anonymous employees of the newspaper visited seaside resorts. The paper printed details of the town, a description of that day’s Lobby Lud and a pass phrase. Anyone carrying the newspaper could challenge Lobby Lud with the phrase and receive five pounds (about £260.00 in 2014).[1][2] People on holiday were known to be less likely to buy a newspaper. Some towns and large factories had holiday fortnights (called “wakes weeks” in the north of England); the town or works would all decamp at the same time. Circulation could drop considerably in the summer and proprietors hoped prizes would increase it.”

        The pass phrase which survives is “You are Lobby Lud and I claim my five pounds”. This is often seen on British chatrooms as “You are (so-and-so) AICMFP”. Often, to be fair, needs explaining to younger Brits too.

        In Catherine’s case, she’s saying “that’s what I would say/was going to say therefore you think exactly like me”. I know Catherine in real life so there is another personal level to the message…

      • Learning this has made doing the blog for three and half years worthwhile.

      • I admit I used the £5 phrase to see if this here Rosalind was the one I thought she was – and she IS!

      • Steady on Ben! *blushes*

      • Regarding Lobby Lud: if you read Brighton Rock by Graham Greene, the early chapters are preoccupied with Kolly Kibber who fulfils the same role. I won’t give the story away if you haven’t read it.

        There is a famous cover for the satirical magazine Private Eye, which has (the then) Jackie Kennedy embracing her next husband and crying
        “You are Aristotle Onassis and I claim my million pounds!”

        My bother-in-law said the other day “Bob’s your uncle and Charley’s your aunt.” Which of course plays around with the famous play Charley’s Aunt by Brandon Thomas.

      • And here is the Kennedy-Onassis Eye, available on EyeBay.

  6. Congrats on your discovery, Ben. It really could be the original source.

  7. Amazingly, I am visiting my uncle Bob in Newfoundland. Also…on two occasions in restaurants in St Johns and Deer Lake, the waitress has asked if I would like the “bill”… Not the “check”
    I can report that the “ize” ending prevails here although there is general confusion over the spellings of meter and defense..when either metre or defence may occur.. Similarly centre center. Sorry this is off topic a bit!

  8. There’s a a nice “posh” alternative to the phrase (sometimes found at the far end of a set of complex instructions):

    “Robert is your father’s brother”

  9. In the Netherlands they have a phrase “Klaar is Kees” (Kees is ready) which is used in exactly the same way… just saying.

  10. Another variant is “Bob’s your uncle and Fanny’s your aunt”. Though this is slightly old-fashioned now, you can still say it without people finding it odd or laughing at the use of fanny. I think it’s more northern originally.

  11. Perhaps mentioned before, but I didn’t see it here. I heard that it was a reference to Robert Peel (after whom London’s “Bobbies” are named) and a politician notorious for nepotism. Is that a myth?

  12. Pingback: “Done and dusted” | Not One-Off Britishisms

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