Bob’s your uncle
‘Bob’s your uncle’ is a typically English phrase not heard that often these days. It’s something that you say after you have explained how to do something, to emphasize that it will be simple and successful eg. ‘You put the plug in here, press that switch, and Bob’s your uncle’ or ‘Just put on the stain remover, leave it for an hour and Bob’s your uncle, the stain’s gone’.
There are a number of theories as to where it comes from, but no one is sure of its origin. Here are the most plausible three.
‘Bob’s your uncle’ is often said to derive from the supposed nepotism of the 20th Prime Minister of Great Britain, Lord Salisbury – family name Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil – who appointed a favourite nephew, Arthur Balfour, to several political posts in the 1880s. Balfour went on to become Prime Minister after his uncle, but his early political appointments were considered inappropriate as he had shown no prior interest in public work. Incidentally, by 1900, Salisbury’s cabinet was nicknamed ‘Hotel Cecil’ reflecting his aloofness and its aristocratic composition, a number of whom were relatives. Hence having an Uncle Bob was a passport to a good job. Since the very word nepotism derives from the Italian word for nephew, the association here seems more than apt.
Unfortunately, the phrase isn’t recorded until at least the 1920s, and if public indignation at Lord Salisbury’s actions had been great enough to provoke creation of the saying, why didn’t it appear the newspapers, or in a satirical magazine of the time such as Punch?
Another possible, but less exciting, theory has it that it derives from an old slang phrase ‘all is bob’ meaning that ‘all is well’, everything is safe. This goes back to the 17th century and it is listed in a dictionary of the time. From the 18th century on, ‘bob’ was also a common name for somebody you didn’t know. Though these may have contributed to the genesis of the phrase, there seems little reason to connect them to ‘Bob’s your uncle’ other than that they both contain the word ‘bob’.
The third possible source is the music hall. There is record in a newspaper of a musical revue at the King’s Theatre in Dundee, Scotland, called Bob’s Your Uncle in June 1924. And the expression was in the lyrics of a song Follow Your Uncle Bob published in 1931, which was sung and recorded by Florrie Forde, a celebrated music hall artiste.
Though we can’t be sure, given the difficulty with the first two, this classically English expression may well be Scottish, and derive not from 10 Downing Street but from Dundee.
Likewise ‘Tail-end Charlie’ is not heard much these days. It referred to the gunner that was in a gun turret at the rear of RAF bomber aircraft in the Second World War. He had the unenviable role of being holed up in the ‘tail’ of the bomber for up to ten lonely hours fighting intense cold, scanning the sky’s for enemy aircraft attacking from the rear. The rear-turret gunners were in the most vulnerable position on the plane. The life expectancy of a Second World War rear gunner varied but was never high, mostly about just five sorties (missions).
The first commissioned rear gunner in the RAF was a Charles Cooper from Harrow. It is said that he was nick-named ‘Tail End Charlie’ by his crew and the name was rapidly adopted for all rear-gunners. A number of books have been written by RAF rear gunners, including Tail Gunner by R C Rivaz, and Rear Gunner Pathfinders by Ron Smith.
In the US air force (USAF), tail-end Charlie was the last aircraft in a flying formation. In army slang, it was the soldier who brought-up the rear of a patrol, and in naval language, it was the last ship in the line. Again, all vulnerable positions to be in.
The phrase was used in cricket. Tail-end Charlie was the last of the eleven batsman to go in, and the likelihood was that he wouldn’t last long at the wicket.
In civilian life the phrase was used to refer to the person at the end of something: a queue, the last to speak, the last to be told, the person who had to clear up the mess. Often they were likely to come off worse than anyone else.