Bob’s Your Uncle?
Dear Evan: I’m enclosing an article from a recent New York Magazine about a shop that recently opened in Manhattan called “Bob’s Your Uncle,” the name of which is also evidently a common British expression. The writer of the article asked “ten different Brits” what the expression means and got ten different answers, ranging from “anything’s possible” to “there you are.” I’m hoping you can shed a little light on the question, and while you’re at it, tell us who “Bob” is. — K. Mercurio, New York City.
I’m looking at the clipping you sent along and coming to the conclusion that we have far bigger problems around here than figuring out who “Bob” might be. According to the author, “Bob’s Your Uncle” (the store) specializes in “unlikely stuff put together in unusual ways” — specifically, “shirts on lamps, steel mesh on pillows, and pot scrubbers on picture frames.” This sounds a great deal like the aftermath of some of the parties I threw in my youth. I never suspected there was a market for that mess. Does Martha Stewart know this is going on?
In any case, it is somewhat disturbing that “ten different Brits” didn’t at least know what the phrase means. “Bob’s your uncle” is a way of saying “you’re all set” or “you’ve got it made.” It’s a catch phrase dating back to 1887, when British Prime Minister Robert Cecil (a.k.a. Lord Salisbury) decided to appoint a certain Arthur Balfour to the prestigious and sensitive post of Chief Secretary for Ireland. Not lost on the British public was the fact that Lord Salisbury just happened to be better known to Arthur Balfour as “Uncle Bob.” In the resulting furor over what was seen as an act of blatant nepotism, “Bob’s your uncle” became a popular sarcastic comment applied to any situation where the outcome was preordained by favoritism. As the scandal faded in public memory, the phrase lost its edge and became just a synonym for “no problem.”
The Word Detective on the Web is the online version of The Word Detective, a newspaper column answering readers’ questions about words and language. The Word Detective is written by Evan Morris and appears in finer newspapers in the U.S., Mexico and Japan.