THE PHRASE BOB’S YOUR UNCLE
3.1/ AN ISOLATED NINETEENTH-CENTURY OCCURRENCE
3.2/ 1920s & 1930s: REAPPEARANCE IN SONGS AND THEATRICAL PRODUCTIONS
3.3/ 1928 & 1932: TWO MYSTERIOUS USES OF THE PHRASE
3.4/ CURRENCY OF THE PHRASE IN 1932
The slang phrase bob’s, or Bob’s, your uncle means everything is, or will, turn out all right.
Apart perhaps from its use as the title of a 1923 song, of which nothing is known, all the early instances of bob’s yer uncle and bob’s your uncle that I have found are from Scotland; the earliest dates back to 1891.
It is likely that in the phrase bob is not the pet form of the forename Robert, but is related to the adjectives bob and bobbish, meaning well, in good health and spirits.
The adjective bob appears several times in A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew (London, 1699), by “B. E. Gent.”; for example, “it’s all bob” is defined as meaning “all is safe, the bet is secured”, and “a bob Ken” as meaning “a good or well Furnished House”.
This adjective also appears in A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (London, 1785), by the English antiquary and lexicographer Francis Grose (1731-91):
All is bob, all is safe.
It is all bob, now let’s dub the gigg of the case; now the coast is clear let us break open the door of the house.
Folk etymology: Nothing in the early attestations of bob’s your uncle supports the popular theory that the phrase originated in the political nepotism allegedly practised by Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil (1830-1903), who, as Prime Minister, appointed his nephew, Arthur James Balfour (1848-1930), as Chief Secretary for Ireland in 1887.
The earliest instance of bob’s your uncle that I have found is from Cuts and Thrusts, by ‘Excalibur’, published in the East Aberdeenshire Observer (Peterhead, Scotland) of Thursday 12th November 1891:
Will the general body of Feuars* be prepared to sacrifice, not only the enhanced rent, but all the recent outlay and improvements? Will they be ready to throw away an appreciably large portion of their revenue in obedience to the behests of a few social cranks, who, as is their nature, would have small scruple in sacrificing any interest which might even be supposed to conflict with their narrow and prejudiced notions? Teetotalers, as a rule, are always to be viewed with a certain amount of suspicion. The very principle—if principle it can be called—which differentiates them from the great mass of ordinary humanity, proves that there is a specially weak point in their natures, that they are morally and mentally lop-sided, and therefore “worth the watching.” It is a relief to know that the lop-sided Feuars will be well watched while Bailie Ross sits at the Board, and to him I with confidence address the counsel “Go it as you have begun! Bob’s yer Uncle!”
* feuar: in Scotland, one who holds land in feu — feu: the tenure of land in perpetuity in return for a continuing annual payment of a fixed sum of money to the owner of the land
I have found no instance of the phrase between 1891 and its reappearance as the title of a new song, spelt Bobs Your Uncle, in an advertisement for Herman Darewski Music Publishing Co., published in The Stage (London) of Thursday 11th January 1923. I have found no additional details about this song.
The phrase was used in 1924 as the title of a revue produced in Scotland, spelt Bob’s Yer Uncle and Bob’s Your Uncle. On Friday 9th May, the Montrose Review, and Forfar and Kincardine Shires Advertiser (Arbroath, Scotland) published the following advertisement for the Empire Theatre, Castle Street, Montrose:
Week commencing May 12th.
Great Comedy Farce Revue. N. D. Productions present
Bob’s Yer Uncle
In 7 Scenes.
Just a Funny Little Review of the World we live in. Star Cast includes
Tommy Elliott and Harry Garner, Comedians and Dancers.
Betty and May Watson.
Jack Daly, Scotch Comedian.
Theo Gammon, Pianist Entertainer.
Jack Langtry, Versatile Vocalist.
Nan Darcy, Soubrette.
And the Little Stars in a Chic Vocal and Dancing Scene.
In June and July of the same year, this revue was successively staged at Glasgow, Dundee, Mossend and Falkirk. In Dundee for example, it was presented at the Victoria Theatre; among several advertisements published in the Evening Telegraph and Post (Dundee, Scotland) was the following one, dating from Monday 16th:
To-night and all the week,
The Great Comedy Scotch Revue,
Bob’s Your Uncle,
With Full Star Cast and Famous Beauty Chorus.
The next day, the same newspaper published the following review:
“Bob’s Yer Uncle,” presented at the Victoria Theatre this week, is a bright potpourri of songs, dances, and laughter. In seven scenes, and played by a capable company, it contrived to pass a merry two hours.
Garnet [sic] and Elliot are a pair of resourceful comedians, and amuse in a number of tricks and devices. They also proved that they could sing and dance. But for one or two of their jokes they were altogether splendid.
Jim Canon sang with effect and executed a smart sand dance, while Jack Langtry proved himself a substantial support to the fun.
Reo [sic] Gammon, the conductor of’ the orchestra, surprised and pleased by bursting forth into song. In fact, his turn was the hit of the evening.
Of the ladies, Nan Darcy proved herself to be no mean comedienne, and sang several ballads. Madge Ray was appealing in her songs. The chorus and a dancing troupe were all capable, and aided in the success of the show.
The revue referred to in the following announcement from The Stage (London) of Thursday 5th November 1925 was probably not the one staged in Scotland the previous year:
H. C. R. Productions present
Ted Clarke & Bob Roberts in
Bobs Your Uncle
Revue. Offers Invited.
All coms, Manager, Wal. Morley, 11, Kennington Terrace, S.E.11.
In 1929, a musical comedy titled Bob’s Your Uncle was briefly staged (29th and 30th April, and 1st May) at the Regent Theatre, Barnstaple, Devon; on Thursday 2nd May, The North Devon Journal (Barnstaple) published the following review—in this case too, the musical comedy in question was probably not any of the above-mentioned revues:
The revuesical [sic] musical comedy, “Bob’s Your Uncle,” presented by C. A. Stephenson, is providing an excellent programme at the “Regent” this week. C. A. Stephenson as “Bob Spiphins” is a big success, no less a favourite being Miss Ina Lorimer as “Sarah Spiphins.” Others contributing to the evening’s entertainment are Hyde Clarke, Lance O’Dare, and Nellie St. Denise.
On Thursday 5th November 1931, The Stage (London) mentioned a new song:
“Follow Your Uncle Bob” (Bob’s Your Uncle), is the title of a new number likely to appeal to those engaged in pantomime or production. It is from the pen of John P. Long, and is issued by Messrs. Francis and Day, Ltd.
The same newspaper gave the following details on 10th December:
John P. Long has recently published with the Peter Maurice Company a number which Randolph Sutton is to produce and record. The title is, “Oh! Mother, What Would You Do?” “Follow Your Uncle Bob” (“Bob’s Your Uncle”), by the same author-composer, has been recorded by Florrie Forde, and will be used by that artist and Randolph Sutton in pantomime. The latter number is published by Francis and Day.
Bob’s your uncle had become a music-hall catchphrase by 1932, according to the British comedian Arty Ash (Arthur Richard Dodge – 1892-1954) in the Yarmouth Independent, Gorleston Times & Flegg Journal (Yarmouth, Norfolk) of Saturday 30th July of that year:
“Film work,” he said, “is entirely different from stage work where you just pop on and say “Bobs your uncle” to the audience and know where you are.”
The meaning of the phrase is undecipherable in the following paragraph from The Essex Newsman (Chelmsford, Essex) of Saturday 3rd March 1928—in the same issue, the newspaper reported that the High Court had ordered Leonard Scott to pay Arthur Henry Solder £250:
BOB’S YOUR UNCLE
Mr. A. H. Solder (Bob’s your Uncle) wishes to THANK all good friends for their congratulations on his successfully defending the action in the High Courts this week.—Advt.
It appears that the coming of the Hornets to Buckingham may arouse keen interest, for if our Young Robins rob them of their sting or the Hornets’ fiery darts are too much for them, then old Hans—h! I don’t know how it works out. Something after the style of thing as “If Bob’s your Uncle, how old would your Aunt’s mother be?”
Two instances from 1932 indicate that the phrase was in common use at that time.
The first is from an article about “the third annual dance and whist tournament organised by the social section of the Plumbers’, Glaziers’ and Domestic Engineers’ Union (Hull Lodge)”, published in The Daily Mail (Hull, Yorkshire) of Saturday 12th November 1932, and Bob’s your Uncle appears to be the name of a team in the whist tournament—it is probably a name reinforcing and expressing the team’s self-confidence:
The second instance is a pun on the name of a racing horse in the Courier and Advertiser (Dundee, Scotland) of Saturday 19th November 1932—here too, the formulation a case of “Bob’s your uncle” refers to an easy achievement:
It was a case of “Bob’s your uncle” at Derby yesterday, for the three-year-old of that name put up a splendid performance to win the Derby Cup.