Bob’s your uncle and other name expressions
If you’ve ever said Bob’s your uncle or called someone a smart Alec, you might have asked yourself: why do certain names appear in common English expressions? While several (such as Champagne Charlie, Billy-No-Mates, and Nosey Parker) began life as fictional characters in popular culture, others apparently refer to real individuals. We explore some of the theories behind name-based phrases…
Bob’s your uncle
Like many common expressions, the exact origins of Bob’s your uncle (used to express the ease with which a task can be achieved) aren’t certain. The most popular theory is that it relates to an act of nepotism in the late 1880s. Political commentators were surprised when the young and inexperienced Arthur Balfour (later Prime Minister of the United Kingdom) was appointed to a number of posts, including the prestigious role as Chief Secretary for Ireland. Balfour’s uncle was Robert Cecil (Lord Salisbury) – then himself the Prime Minister. The theory runs that if Bob (short for ‘Robert’) is your uncle, then anything goes, and you can have what you want.
However, although this theory is beguiling, most linguists today think that the idiom relates to an earlier slang expression ‘all is bob’, meaning that everything is fine.
Perhaps rather less welcome as a sobriquet is Peeping Tom. You may well be familiar with the tale of Peeping Tom, a tailor who was supposedly the only person to watch Lady Godiva while she rode naked through Coventry. She had – so the story goes – issued an edict that all doors and windows be shut, but Tom peeped, and was either blinded or struck dead, depending upon which version you read. But was there a real Tom? Unlikely. He isn’t mentioned in the city accounts of Coventry until 1773, around six centuries after Lady Godiva made her journey. ‘Tom’ is more likely to be simply a generic term for a man, seen in tomboy, and Tom, Dick, and Harry. Lady Godiva, meanwhile, was a real person, attested to in the Domesday Book – although it is unlikely that the incident in question actually took place at all.
While we’re talking of Thomases, you may also have heard the term ‘doubting Thomas’, denoting ‘a person who is sceptical and refuses to believe something without proof’. Although the epithet isn’t found until the early 17th century, it’s actually a reference to one of Jesus’ twelve disciples in the New Testament. According to the Gospel of John, Thomas is not present when Jesus first appears to the disciples after being resurrected; when he does see Jesus (John 20:24-29) he believes, but Jesus says ‘blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed’.
As happy as Larry
Larry is renowned for his happiness – he has, indeed, become a benchmark for it, in this British expression – but who was he? There is a theory that the proverbial Larry was Laurence ‘Larry’ Foley (1849-1917), a boxer known as the ‘Father of Australian Boxing’, who won a significant sum for his final fight in 1879.
While that’s a nice story (particularly for Larry), another theory has been offered which doesn’t involve any particular Larry. Rather, this theory relates to the word larry, which once meant ‘a statement of excitement’ in certain regions of Britain. Then there is the Australian and New Zealand term larrikin (‘a boisterous, often badly behaved young man’) that originated in Warwickshire and Worcestershire in England, and may have become abbreviated to larry for the purposes of this phrase.
Ok, so Larry may or may not have been a real person – but what about Smart Alec (or also, in North America, smart aleck)? It’s a mildly derogatory term for ‘a person who is irritating because they behave as if they know everything’ – similar to Clever Dick (short for Richard, and not – as far as we know – referring to any particular person).
Again, there is a theory but no conclusive evidence. Gerald Cohen, in Studies in Slang (1985) argued that the Alec in question could be a notorious pickpocket and thief operating in 1840s New York: Alexander Hoag. He apparently worked with his wife Melinda, a prostitute, to fleece her clients – bribing police officers for protection. Eventually (so the story goes) he tried to outwit the policemen too and, while this led to Hoag’s downfall, Cohen suggests that ‘Smart Alec’ became police slang for anybody who outsmarted them. No contemporary evidence of the name being applied to him has been found, and it first appears rather later in a different part of the United States (1860s in Nevada), so it does seem like this story might be apocryphal…
Jack the lad
Speaking of criminals, while you might be forgiven for assuming that the Jack of Jack the Lad is simply a generic man’s name, it might actually relate to thief Jack Sheppard. He was born in Spitalfields, London in 1702, and his life of crime led to him being arrested and imprisoned four times – but each time (it is said) he succeeded in escaping from prison. His ingenuity captured the public imagination, and he appears in folk ballads of the period and later, such as this 1840 example: ‘For if ever fellow took delight in swigging, gigging, kissing, drinking, fighting, Damme I’ll be bold to say that Jack’s the lad.’
From thieves to politicians, the Scott of Great Scott is believed to refer to one General Winfield Scott (1786-1866). He was Commanding General of the United States Army (1841-61) and Whig party presidential candidate (1852), as well as a popular national figure in the United States, celebrated for his role in Mexican-American War of 1846-8.
Other theories have been suggested for the origin of this phrase – among them the novelist Walter Scott – but Winfield is believed to be the most likely option. The popularity of the expression as a euphemistic alteration of Great God! was also doubtless aided by the half rhyme of Scott and God.