Fraser’s Phrases: ‘Bob’s Your Uncle’

Bob Hoskins in 'Made In Dagenham'

If you could bottle the nonsense spoken by people when they’re attempting to appear optimistic or helpful, and use it as a tonic when feeling down or depressed, you’d have one enormous, scarcely liftable bottle, filled to the brim with a liquid which has the exact same fluidity and consistency as nothing at all.

And yet, these little social niceties are the ways in which we tell each other we’re being friendly. Hell, The Office is almost entirely built upon them. People do like to say common things in uncommon ways, just to show they’re human.

And this is the root of a saying like “Bob’s your uncle,” which is a verbal dismount at the end of a set of instructions, the same way that people say “and there you have it” or “and you’re golden” or “and voila!”

Opinions are split as to where the expression came from. It could be to do with Sir Robert Peel, who created the Metropolitan Police Force – known commonly as “bobbies” – and either campaigned using “Bob’s Your Uncle” as a (slightly creepy) slogan, or had a roguish nephew who was believed to have been kept from prison by his uncle.

Then there’s the name itself, which appears to have been used as a catch-all name for someone you don’t know, in much the same way that Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and that lot constantly referred to, well, anyone, as “Clyde.” It appears to have travelled over the Atlantic as “bub” too.

However, the most likely direct origin appears to be a satirical swipe at A. J. Balfour’s promotion to Chief Secretary for Ireland by his uncle Lord Salisbury. Lord Salisbury’s first name being Robert, you see.

Of course, people being people, once they’ve got an expression to get their teeth into, they can’t even leave it there. Soon they started saying “Robert’s your mother’s brother” and “…and Fanny’s your aunt” as if the lid had been torn off a chest full of nonsensical pleasantries. The latter being a curious echo of another expression “my Aunt Fanny!” a statement of pure disbelief which works in much the same witheringly sarcastic way as “I DON’T think!” or “as if!”

Which, while we’re here, leads us to the F-word. No, not that F-word, the other one.

It’s fairly well known that the American use of the word “fanny” describes the backside, and the British use describes a lady’s, ah, frontside, a situation which brings  a LOT of cross-cultural hilarity, especially around the item we’d call a bum-bag. But did you know that when someone refers to “sweet Fanny Adams,” they mean literally “nothing at all”?

Simon: “I’m so sorry to hear your bag was stolen. What’s missing?”
Jessica: “Everything! They’ve left me with sweet Fanny Adams!”

By which it’s assumed she means “sweet f*** all,” although there’s some conjecture as to who Fanny Adams might be. The point’s the same, something which should be there isn’t there, and it’s bloody annoying.

Still, all Jessica needs to do report the theft to the bobbies, is claim on her insurance, go on a shopping spree and replace the lot. Bob’s your uncle! *dusts off hands*

Fraser McAlpine

Fraser has been writing and broadcasting about music and popular culture for over 15 years, first at the Top of the Pops website, and most recently for the NME, Guardian and MSN. He also wrote BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog and reviews albums for BBC Radio 2.

He is Anglophenia's current resident Brit, blogging about British slang and running around the Mall taking snaps of the crowd at the Royal Wedding, as well as reigniting a childhood passion for classic Doctor Who and cramming as much music in as he can manage.

Fraser invites you to join him on Twitter: @csi_popmusic

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