Working at my computer with the TV on in the background, I heard the woman in one of those interminable infomercials spruiking about the benefits of a steam mop. She finished by saying how quickly everything could be sent and that “Bob’s your uncle.” That started me wondering as to how an expression meaning “There you have it” or “You’re all set” would originate with a reference to someone named Bob.
My reading on the topic revealed the following the following. . .
The expression is mainly confined to British and Commonwealth countries. This means that although the phrase is commonplace in the vocabulary of Poms and Aussies, the Seppos have less familiarity with it.
Further, there are some linguistic difficulties between English English and American English that touch upon the expression, more of that later.
The origin of the expression is unknown, although various possibilities have been advanced.
The first theory is based on the Victorian Prime Minister, Robert Cecil, Lord Salisbury, having appointed his unpopular nephew, Arthur Balfour, to a succession of posts.
|Robert Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury|
The most controversial of such appointments was in 1887 when Balfour became chief secretary of Ireland, notwithstanding that he was seemed unsuited to the position. The Dictionary of National Biography says: “The country saw with something like stupefaction the appointment of the young dilettante to what was at the moment perhaps the most important, certainly the most anxious office in the administration”. This gave rise, so the explanation goes, to the common feeling in England that having Bob as your uncle would grants success. (Funnily enough the word nepotism derives from the Italian word for nephew. This was because Italian popes gave preferential treatment to “nephews”, a euphemism for their bastard sons).
Surprisingly Balfour didn’t do too badly at the job, earning the nickname Bloody Balfour from the Irish. He also became Prime Minister from 1902–5).
The problem with accepting this etymology for the expression “Bob’s your uncle” is that the phrase isn’t recorded until 1937, in Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English. Although Partridge suggested that it had been in use since the 1890s, there has been no earlier use of it in print.
Another theory is that the phrase refers to Lord Frederick Roberts (1832–1914), 1st Earl Roberts.
Lord Frederick Roberts
Roberts was an Anglo-Irish soldier, born in India, who fought and commanded in India, Abyssinia, Afghanistan and South Africa. One of the most successful commanders of the 19th century and cited for numerous acts of gallantry, he is also renowned for ending of the siege of Kandahar in 1878. Having marched a force of 10,000 men more than 300 miles from Kabul, he won a battle, and ended the siege.
Roberts was highly regarded by his men and was affectionately referred to them as 'Uncle Bobs'. It is said that the phrase "Bob's your uncle" was originally used by Roberts's men to increase confidence among the ranks and imply that all would be well.
The third explanation is also the most probable. Dating from the 17th century, having been recorded in Captain Francis Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue of 1785, the phrase “all is bob” meant that everything was safe, pleasant or satisfactory. The theory holds that this evolved into ”Bob’s your uncle”.
Capt Francis Grose
The 2009 Jim Carey pic A Christmas Carol contains the lines “Bob’s your uncle, Fanny’s your aunt!”
Likewise the 2003 flick Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, has Captain Jack Sparrow saying “Robert’s your uncle, Fanny’s your aunt.”
How did the reference to “Fanny’s your aunt” get added and what is its meaning?
The amplified expression is less well known but not so rare as to be uncommon.
Its origin is even more confused.
As a starting point, note that the word “fanny” has a different meaning in the US compared to England and Australia.
In the US the word means a woman’s buttocks, in England and Oz it has always meant vagina, although the US meaning is starting to become used.
The term “My Aunt Fanny!” has always been an exclamation equivalent to “Bullshit!”
That is my acquaintance with it and it is so recorded in the online Urban Dictionary:
A way of politely calling bullshit when someone tries to give you an unbelievable excuse, line, lie, or over exaggeration. The dog ate your homework? My Aunt Fanny!
There would appear to be an inconsistency in the expression “Bob’s your uncle and Fanny’s your aunt” if the above two meanings are applied, the first phrase meaning everything is fine, settled; the second that it is unbelievable, untrue.
One possibility is that it evolved from the spoken expression “Bob’s your uncle”, meaning everything is done, set, being met by the response “My Aunt fanny!”, meaning “Not so!”
At any rate, there are no explanations I have been able to find as to Aunt Fanny having been conjoined to Uncle Bob.
As to the origin of "Sweet Fanny Adams", see: