Friday, February 25, 2011

Adam and Bob

Deb: My dear darling friend Cheryl and her little girl Mel have been featured in the blog before, amusing us with Mel’s great insights and funny observations. The following exchange took place this weekend and prompted my idea for the blog. The story is told by her mom, Cheryl:

So Rob, the newly ex husband of my friend Donna who just passed away, has for some God unknown reason given my cell phone number to someone named Curtis who thinks he knows me and is my long lost pal. I haven't a clue who Curtis is. He's called me twice, the second time today on our way home from church. When I got rid of him I was ranting on to Mel about the situation and she said, “Well, maybe Adam forgot to tell you.” I asked what she meant and who Adam was, that the only names in the story were Rob and Curtis. “You know”, she reiterated, “Adam. Adam just didn't tell you.” And then it came to me: I must have said “I don't know him from Adam.” Clearly she felt Adam, whoever he was, had sadly neglected his duty to introduce Curtis and me......Much as I didn't want to ruin future fun, I explained about the expression.

I love this story for any number of reasons, but for the purposes of this blog, it’s because I love the old expressions and I love finding out their origins. After Cheryl sent this to Barb and myself, I googled the origin of “Don’t know him from Adam”. Here’s what I got:

The form commonly used is 'not to know one from Adam's off ox,' meaning to have not the slightest information about the person indicated…. 1848 the author of a book on 'Nantucketisms' recorded a saying then in use on that island, 'Poor as God's off ox,' which, he said, meant very poor. It is possible that on the mainland 'Adam' was used as a euphemistic substitute. The off ox, in a yoke of oxen, is the one on the right of the team. Because it is the farthest from the driver it cannot be so well seen and may therefore get the worst of the footing. It is for that reason that 'off ox' has been used figuratively to designate a clumsy or awkward person.

In other words, the expression started out differently, with "God" rather than "Adam" as the term, and people who feel uncomfortable talking about "God" colloquially substituted "Adam."

One of my favourite expressions is “Bob’s your Uncle”. Here is what I found out about it. The top theory is the one I have always believed, but as you can see, it has some holes in it:

One theory regarding the origin of the phrase is that it refers to Lord Frederick Roberts. Roberts was an Anglo-Irish soldier, born in India, who fought and commanded in India, Abyssinia, Afghanistan, and South Africa. Roberts was one of the most successful commanders of the Victorian era and was cited for numerous acts of gallantry. His finest hour was perhaps the lifting of the siege of Kandahar in 1878 in which he marched a force of 10,000 men over three hundred miles from Kabul, winning a battle and successfully lifting the siege. Well respected amongst his men, Roberts was affectionately referred to as 'Uncle Bobs'.

Generally meaning 'all will be well', and often used to indicate a successful outcome, the phrase "Bob's your uncle" was a term originally used by Roberts' men to boost confidence among the ranks and imply that all would be well under his command.

Another explanation is that the phrase dates to 1887, when British Prime Minister Robert Cecil, Lord Salisbury decided to appoint Arthur Balfour to the prestigious and sensitive post of Chief Secretary for Ireland in an act of nepotism. Lord Salisbury was Arthur Balfour's uncle. The difficulty with that explanation is that—despite extensive searching—the earliest known published uses of the phrase are from 1932, two from 1937, and two from 1938. (See these and other quotes in American Dialect Society list archived posts by Stephen Goranson.)[1][2]

Another theory is that it derives from the slang phrase "All is bob," meaning that everything is safe, pleasant or satisfactory. This dates back to the eighteenth century or so (it’s in Captain Francis Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue of 1785). There have been several other slang expressions containing bob, some associated with thievery or gambling, and from the eighteenth century on it was also a common generic name for someone one didn’t know. Any or all of these might have contributed to its genesis.[3]
In London and York, it can be heard of someone stating "Bob's yer Uncle", and then upon hearing this, a woman nearby may respond "and Fanny's yer Aunt!"


Barbara: Great idea, Deb! I’ve often wondered about certain expressions, but never thought to look them up. Okay, I’ll go first—the expression I that I’m curious about is “for the love of Pete”. Here’s what I found:

This phrase and phrases like "for Pete's sake" are euphemisms for the phrases "for the love of God/Christ" or "for God's/Christ's sake" and hail from a time when those phases were considered blasphemous. Nowadays phrases like "for the love of God" are commonly used, but the euphemisms are still used. Why Pete? Most likely it is a reference to the catholic Saint Peter.

Biblical origins. Think of St Peter. Think of the omnipresent medieval church and think of hitting your thumb with a hammer. You can't swear, else the local priests will have you up before the Bishop and the Lord alone knows what the outcome of that will be, so you exclaim, in appropriate tone of voice, "For Saint Peter's sake" and carry on erecting the shelves. This phrase was amended to "For Pete's Sake" in later, less religiously oppressive, times.

Or this: ….the exclamation for the love of Pete seems to be slightly older (it’s recorded in print from 1918). In turn that reminds us of for the love of Mike, which is older still, from the 1880s. This last expression seems to have been a euphemistic cry to replace for the love of God, which is known from the early eighteenth century as an irritated exclamation. Another well-known exclamation, for pity’s sake, seems likely to have been an influence on the choice of Pete. As a result, at some point around 1918, Pete joined Mike as the person to invoke when you were impatient, annoyed, frustrated or disappointed in someone or something, both men being stand-ins for the God that it would be blasphemous to mention.

But, strangely, there’s also this: 'Love of Peat', on the other hand, is an Irish expression describing the main characteristic of a home loving individual who spent their days crouched around a peat fire.

Don’t forget to give us your faves. We don’t just enjoy ranting and raving, we like to learn stuff too!


  1. The only one I can think of right now is, " You catch more flys with honey,than you do with viniger". And the only reason I know that one is because my great grandmother use to tell me that one.

  2. My ex-husband is from the East Coast, which is where I first heard the expression "Bob's your uncle". The way they would use it would be to indicate that something is easy and guaranteed. For example, directions. Go to the first light, turn left and Bob's your uncle. (ie., you're there). The explanation I got was that, sure as shootin' (hmmm... wonder where that one came from. But I digress) everyone down East is guaranteed to have an Uncle Bob, so when an outcome is guaranteed "Bob's your uncle". - Anne

  3. Never heard any of the Bob expressions. Maybe it is an Eastern thing.
    Did you wake up on the wrong side of the bed?

    The origin is from ancient superstition which held it to be unlucky to touch the floor first with the left foot when getting out of bed. Earlier versions of the expression with the same meaning were: 'You got out of bed the wrong way', and 'You got out of bed with the left leg foremost' (which perhaps explains why today's version, which trips off the tongue rather more easily, developed).

  4. I have parents who regularly spurt off these random old expressions, but more often than not, my Dad will change them slightly so that they sound even more meaningless than they are! Case in point: the Bob's your Uncle saying - Thanks to Dad, my brothers and sister and I have all grown up believing that it goes 'Bob's your Uncle George'!


  5. Fun additions, you guys! I didn't know about the "wrong side of the bed" pedigree. And the "Bob's your uncle"? Can't believe how many people DO use that. Although Elle definitely wins for the most fun derivative. Bob's your Uncle George?!!! Love it.

  6. This post is great! I am such a fool for language. My father is good for spouting funny sayings, most of them insults which are funny when directed at anyone except me. You look like you've been rode hard, put away wet derives from horse riding. I can't find the origins of I'd like to buy you for what you're worth and sell you for what you think you're worth, but I want to say it comes from Oscar Wilde or Charles Dickens.

    The saying I employ the most comes from the British TV show The Young Ones. Instead of saying "Oh, for god's sake" I say "Oh, for Cliff's sake" which was something the character Ric said as an oath to the singer Cliff Richard. Weird, I know, but I'd rather confuse people than offend them, I suppose.

  7. My Mother used to haul out "well it's better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick".

    I find myself hauling it out when I feel the need to be a wise ass in a situation that would benefit from levity.

    I've tried to find the origins of it - it's been around for ages but nobody's sure where/who/why it became a phrase.

    Celtic origins were claimed in one google search.

  8. Hey all, this is from both Deb and Barbara as Deb is having connection issues and can't access her profile for the blog!! She wants to make sure you all know she's reading and loving the additions.

    Lisa, I love "for Cliff's sake". So arbitrary, so funny.

    And Tannis, I'm writing a novel about a remote Maritime village and had to research Maritime phrases (although not their origins). Some are snort-coke-from-your-nose funny. LIke: "If the sun didn't rise in the east the fella's out west still be in the dark". Or ‎"Uglier than a bucket of old Skidoo parts". Who knows how they take root...

  9. "Every one in a blue moon" Is one that I use often. Not A clue again as to what it means or where it came from,but I do use it often.

  10. Hi all phew! seemed to have figured this thing out. First time using my iPad for the blog. We're in Vancouver and so I wanted to travel light. loving all the reponses. lyndsie, I think the once in a blue moon might be because blue moons are so rare. it 's when you get two full moon's in one calendar month. For Cliff's sake killed me and the foot bed stuff was great too.poke in the eye I love and say all the time. Love the George too! some of my mom and dad's are great. "Lord love a duck" or " Fun and fancy to please old Nancy" or "Save your breath to cool your soup" or when my mom sees a tough looking gal she'll say "she looks like she could chew nails and spit rust!


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