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.
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”: