Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Episode 118: Bob's Your Uncle Show Notes

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Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast

Episode 118: Bob’s Your Uncle

Record Date: July 25, 2021

Air Date: July 28, 2021



Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase. 

And I’m Shauna Harrison

And I’m Dan Pugh

Every week, we take an idiom, or other turn of phrase, and try to tell the story from its entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.

Back in May of 2020 (that’s about 14 months ago for those of you listening to this as part of a binge session. And good for you if you are.) But back in May of 2020 our friends at the Lexitecture podcast did listener questions for episode 65. One of the questions was on the origins of the phrase, “Bob’s Your Uncle”. Now Lexitecture usually takes a word and explores it, while we take phrases and explore them. While our two podcasts are not officially affiliated in any way, we at Bunny Trails see them as fellow members of the word nerd family. If you like what we do, you’ll probably like what they do, too. But back to Bob’s Your Uncle, Ryan gave a brief synopsis of the phrase and suggested we might take a deeper look at it. 


Now this phrase has several stories floating around about its origins, but there is a forerunner. But first, let’s define the phrase. 

From the OED


Slang phr. Bob's (bob's) your uncle: everything is all right.

1937   in E. Partridge Dict. Slang (ed. 2) 981/2.  

1946   S. Spender European Witness 143   He mixes up phrases such as ‘Oh boy, oh boy’, with cockney such as ‘Bob's-your-uncle’.

1949   ‘N. Blake’ Head of Traveller iv. 60   Three curves and a twiddle, label it ‘Object’, and bob's your uncle.

This is one where I feel like OED did a poor job, as the phrase “all right” can be idiomatic in usage. So let’s look at another one.

From the Cambridge Dictionary

used to mean that something will happen very quickly and simply

With this example phrase: Just tell them you're a friend of mine and, Bob's your uncle, you'll get the job. 

Which is an interesting segue as the most prominent origin story deals with someone getting a job because of who they know. In this case, nepotism, which according to Merriam Websters, means 


favoritism (as in appointment to a job) based on kinship

End Quote

On the same page as the entry for Nepotism, Merriam Websters, gives this little ditty:


During his papacy from 1471-1484, Sixtus IV granted many special favors to members of his family, in particular his nephews. This practice of papal favoritism was carried on by his successors, and in 1667 it was the subject of Gregorio Leti's book Il Nepotismo di Roma-titled in the English translation, The History of the Popes' Nephews. Shortly after the book's appearance, nepotism began to be used in English for the showing of special favor or unfair preference to any relative by someone in any position of power, be it ecclesiastical or not. (The "nep-" spelling is from nepote, a 17th-century variant of Italian nipote, meaning "nephew.")

End Quote 

I didn’t follow up on the origin story of the word nepotism as it wasn’t the subject of today’s phrase, but I don’t have any reason to question what Merriam Webster has on it, especially since the OED does show the word originating in 


1667 or earlier with reference to popes.  

End Quote

Before we talk about the most likely origin story, I’ll run through a couple of other ideas. 

I’ll read an excerpt from a post by Liz Potter of the MacMillan Dictionary Blog. The publication date isn’t given on the page - rather it just says “8 years ago”. I’m going to assume that auto-updates, which means this was likely written in 2013. 


“The first citation of the phrase in OED refers to an entry in Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang, 1937; but Partridge cannot shed much light, beyond claiming that it has been used since ca. 1890 and speculating that it may be an elaboration of the ‘low-slang’ phrase all is bob, meaning ‘all is safe’”

End Quote

I found reference to “All is bob” in Francis Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue - 1811. From the entry on “Bob” - 


A shoplifter's assistant, or one that receives and carries off stolen goods. All is bob; all is safe. Cant.

End Quote

This type of usage is likely what Eric Partridge was referencing, but it’s important to note that Partridge wasn’t born until 1894 and didn’t begin publishing books on slang until the 1930s. Which will be important to note a bit later.

Gary Martin from the website, The Phrase Finder notes another potential source: the music hall.



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.

End Quote

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find much about this performance. 

Picking back up with the next line of Gary Martin’s piece…


The expression also formed part of the lyrics of a song written by John P. Long, and published in 1931 - Follow Your Uncle Bob. The lyrics include:

Bob's your uncle

Follow your Uncle Bob

He knows what to do

He'll look after you

The song was sung and recorded by Florrie Forde.

End Quote

Side note about this amazing woman...

According to Jeff Brownrigg in his book “Biography - Forde, Florrie”

Florrie Forde’s real name was Flora May Augusta Flannagan. And from 1897 she lived and worked in the United Kingdom. She was one of the most popular stars of the early 20th century music hall.

Brownrigg, Jeff. "Biography – Forde, Florrie (1875–1940)'". Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume. Melbourne University Press.

So her popularity would definitely have brought the phrase into the minds of a new generation. 

And we do see the song from 1931 in the Catalog of Copyright Entries, 4th series, held by the Library of Congress 

I was unable to find much about John P. Long. But assuming he was an adult when he wrote this piece, it is within the scope of possibility that he would have been of a generation that would use the phrase based on Eric Partridges 1890 timeline.   

Another story that is often floated is the popularity of another song and dance routine, Bob’s Your Uncle and Fanny’s Your Aunt. I saw many references to this being a bit of a call and answer, as in someone would say Bob’s Your Uncle and the other person would respond with And Fanny’s Your Aunt. This seems to have been popularized by a 1950s song of the same name, composed by Tommie Connor and Eddie Lisbona. You can even buy a copy of the sheet music from 1954 right now on Amazon UK. 

But since this one originated in the 1950s, and we know the phrase was in use much earlier, we can eliminate this as an origin story. Though it may well have helped bring the phrase to a new generation and keep its popularity intact. 

And finally for the forerunner, I’ll return to the story our friends at Lexitecture mentioned. The version I’ll read comes from Gary Martin at the website. 


The first idea, and one that many believe, is that Bob and his nephew were the Marquess of Salisbury and Arthur Balfour.

Like many Victorian aristocrats, Salisbury, the 20th British Prime Minister, didn't lack for names and his was as full as his beard - Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury. For our purposes we can cut that down to just 'Bob'.

Salisbury is widely believed to be the Uncle Bob that the expression refers to. 'Bob's your uncle' is said to derive from the supposed nepotism of Lord Salisbury, in appointing a favourite nephew, Arthur Balfour, to several political posts in the 1880s.

Balfour went on to become Prime Minister after his uncle, His early political appointments were considered inappropriate as he had shown no prior interest in public work.

It is unlikely that Arthur Balfour would ever have become a celebrated politician without the patronage of his influential uncle. Piers Brendon, in Eminent Edwardians, 1979, writes:

"In 1887, Balfour was unexpectedly promoted to the vital front line post of Chief Secretary for Ireland by his uncle Robert, Lord Salisbury."

End Quote

These comments are the types of things I’ve run into when researching this phrase. The biggest gap in the Arthur Balfor story is, if true, this phrase would have been used in beginning in 1887. But the next time most anyone could find it in print is 1924 with the Dundee music revue. So why would a phrase that originated in 1887 not make it into print until long after both politicians had left office?

Everytime I’m introduced to an old slang book, or a new website that categorized printed materials, or that researches said materials, I pick up this and a few other phrases to see if there is any information that I’ve missed that could add to this puzzle. 

Recently, I ran across the website by Dave Wilton. According to his site, Dr Wilton has a PhD in medieval English literature from the University of Toronto and is the author of the 2004 book Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends.

He notes he came across another website,, which reported a usage from 12 November 1891. Dr. Wilton was unable to verify this usage, but noted he had no reason to disbelieve it. 

This caused me great joy and excitement as now I have a specific date… and a citation to track down. And track down I did! Thanks to the British Newspaper Archives I found the newspaper in question. On page 5 in the “Cuts and Thrusts” section, which seems to be a series of short updates, I found the paragraph that and both mentioned. The byline say, “By Excalibur”

East Aberdeenshire Observer

November 12, 1891


End Quote

Side note:

According to the Dictionaries of the Scots Language, 


One who holds land in feu, or a court held to administer the feuing of land.

Of course, since I don’t know what fue means, that only marginally helped. 


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; formerly also for payment in kind or rarely for something of token value merely, in all cases paid as a commutation of the military service due by the vassal to his superior under the feudal system

In some of the examples listed on the site, feurers is used synonymously with proprietor. 

As a side note, the British Newspaper Archive lists the name of the paper as Buchan Observer and East Aberdeenshire Advertiser, which probably means these two newspapers either merged or separated to get the name that is actually on the printed paper, East Aberdeenshire Observer in 1891.

I still haven’t found any other sources of the phrase used between this one in 1891 and the 1924 musical revue. But you may recall Eric Partridge’s 1937 work A dictionary of slang and unconventional English notes the phrase is from around 1890, though he does not offer a citation in the work. It is possible that this 1891 newspaper usage is the source to which he was referring. 

Like many English idioms, we may never know the true origins.

The timeline does fit for Arthur Balfour. He was appointed the Chief Secretary of Ireland in 1887 by his uncle, the Prime Minister. And we see the phrase in use in 1891 in a Scottish newspaper. Which narrows the previously identified gap in this story and makes it much more plausible than previous evidence would have suggested.

Next up we want to look at how this phrase is being used in today’s English, but first we need to thank a few people for allowing us to continue this research and bringing it to you every week.

A Quick Thank You


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Modern Uses

1941 - A statement from a German refugee to Britain commenting on the best way to learn English

Song 1991

Bob’s Yer Uncle by Happy Monday’s

Happy Mondays are an English alternative rock band from Salford, Greater Manchester, formed in 1980. The track ''Bob's yer uncle'' was released in 1991, in their album ''Pills 'n' Thrills and Bellyaches''.

The phrase “Bob’s Yer Uncle” doesn’t appear in the song lyrics at all, and I won’t read the lyrics on the podcast as they describe a lively night in bed between 4 amorous souls ~ and we like that our podcast is sometimes used by teachers as optional assignments for their high school students.

Patrons can stick around after the show to hear the lyrics on the behind the scenes video, available to Patrons at any level. Find out more at

(This link is from the Greatest Hits album, released in 1999.) 

TV Gameshow 1991-1992

Bob’s Your Uncle was a short-lived wedding based game show in which three newlywed couples would compete for 3,000 pounds and a new car. It was hosted by comedian Bob Monkhouse.

Band 1995

I found a Chicago based rock band called Bob’s Yer Uncle. In a Daily Vualt review of their 1999 album, Innocence and Experience, Christopher Thelen said:


The group... reminds me of a poppier Smashing Pumpkins. The rhythms... are complex but do have a toe-tapping groove to them, and the vocals hide the darker tone of the lyrics in their simple beauty.

The overall sound of Innocence And Experience is surprisingly excellent; this is something I've grown to not expect from an independent release….

But beyond the poppy sound are some grey clouds, something that will come through on repeated listenings. From coming to terms with one's self... to the melancholic existence of the populace..., Bob's Yer Uncle dares to try and be a thinking person's band. Such images might frighten some listeners away, but I think it actually adds to the musical texture that the band strives to create.

End Quote

Book 2015

Bob’s Your Uncle: A Dictionary of Slang for British Mystery Fans by Jann Turner-Lord

This book came out in 2015 and the synopsis from Goodreads goes:


If it's a mystery to you what they're talking about in the hard-boiled slang of British mysteries--or if you're just a fan who delights in the colorful lingo of Limey lawmen--Bob's Your Uncle: A Dictionary of Slang for British Mystery Fans by Jann Turner-Lord will put you over the moon.

There are hundreds of thousands of lovers of cozy British mysteries in the United States alone, readers of everything from Sherlock Holmes to viewers of BBC's "Eastenders," and most will tell you that their infatuation has quickly turned into addiction. But how many of us Yanks are fluent in the intricacies of Limey lingo? Most know bobbies are policemen and pubs are bars; but what's a flash Harry; what's a donkey jacket; what's the difference between a knicker and a pair of knickers?

With over 500 terms from aggro to zed, plus a special section on Cockney rhyming slang, Bob's Your Uncle is a right jumble sale of lexicography. It's not only a novel reference work, it's a whacking good read as well!

End Quote

Here’s a round up of a few uses from Twitter over the past week or so

July 19



Got a great idea why don’t we all use ice bags as a mattress OR SLEEPING BAG SO WE ALL JUST LAY ON ICE PACKS OR BAGS AND BOBS YOUR UNCLE

July 22 - Responding to how it’s too hot to make a fire pit.



Replying to @ShyCybertruck

I used to just dig a hole gather some rocks sticks and bobs your uncle. I now use a proper gas grill but this, for me, tastes better. That’s a relatively inexpensive 40 quid charcoal grill you can get in Lowe’s or Home Depot in the States. It’s not tall so it’ll kill your back-

July 25 - in a conversation about gardens...



Yes good idea, we grow potatoes in big pots, really easy , just put some away in a dark cupboard wait till they sprout ,plant them deep & bobs your uncle .

Wrap up...

Special thanks again to our friends at the Lexitecture podcast for suggesting we take a deeper dive on this one - even though it took me over a year to make it happen. I must say I am so happy to be able to finally make this episode. In February of 2018, Shauna and I went to a restaurant, ordered some margaritas, and wrote down as many idioms as we could think of. We’d been talking about starting this podcast but wanted to make sure there would be enough source material to even make a weekly show work. We needed to get to 100 to make us feel like it was viable. Bob’s your uncle was one of the first ones we thought of, mostly because it’s been a running joke between us for over 20 years as Bob really is Shauna’s uncle. 

There’s no way I would have felt comfortable doing this episode without something new to add to the conversation, and finding Dave Wilton’s commentary on the subject on his website was the catalyst for getting the 1891 quote to lend credence to the Arthur Balfour story. Not that we can definitively say this is the origin, but it certainly removes some of the barriers we originally thought existed.

And since Bob’s Your Uncle seems to continue to be a popular way of saying, “and there you have it” even today, it’s good to give us a little more context in the history of its origins. 



That’s about all the time we have for today. If you have a pop culture reference we should have mentioned, we’d love to hear about it! Reach out to us on social media where we are @bunnytrailspod, or comment on our website - Of course, the best way to make sure we see your comment is to post it on the Patreon page! 


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Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. And until then remember... 


Words belong to their users.

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