Bob's Your Uncle, Lame Duck, Malarkey, Dressed to the Nines, P's and Q's, and "Uxorious" -- threat or menace?

Bob's Your Uncle?

Dear Evan: I'm enclosing an article from a recent New York Magazine about a shop that recently opened in Manhattan called "Bob's Your Uncle," the name of which is also evidently a common British expression. The writer of the article asked "ten different Brits" what the expression means and got ten different answers, ranging from "anything's possible" to "there you are." I'm hoping you can shed a little light on the question, and while you're at it, tell us who "Bob" is. -- K. Mercurio, New York City.

I'm looking at the clipping you sent along and coming to the conclusion that we have far bigger problems around here than figuring out who "Bob" might be. According to the author, "Bob's Your Uncle" (the store) specializes in "unlikely stuff put together in unusual ways" -- specifically, "shirts on lamps, steel mesh on pillows, and pot scrubbers on picture frames." This sounds a great deal like the aftermath of some of the parties I threw in my youth. I never suspected there was a market for that mess. Does Martha Stewart know this is going on?

In any case, it is somewhat disturbing that "ten different Brits" didn't at least know what the phrase means. "Bob's your uncle" is a way of saying "you're all set" or "you've got it made." It's a catch phrase dating back to 1887, when British Prime Minister Robert Cecil (a.k.a. Lord Salisbury) decided to appoint a certain Arthur Balfour to the prestigious and sensitive post of Chief Secretary for Ireland. Not lost on the British public was the fact that Lord Salisbury just happened to be better known to Arthur Balfour as "Uncle Bob." In the resulting furor over what was seen as an act of blatant nepotism, "Bob's your uncle" became a popular sarcastic comment applied to any situation where the outcome was preordained by favoritism. As the scandal faded in public memory, the phrase lost its edge and became just a synonym for "no problem."

Lame Duck

Dear Mr. Morris -- Do you know the source of the phrase "lame duck?" -- Barb Bumann, Spokane Public Library, Spokane, WA.

Now here's an easy one. The phrase "lame duck" comes to us from Aesop's Fables, specifically the tale of Androcles and the Duck. It seems that an escaped slave named Androcles encountered a ferocious duck in the forest. But rather than eating the terrified slave, the duck merely asked Androcles to pull a thorn from his paw, or foot, or whatever. Androcles complied, and he and the "lame duck" became fast friends, frequenting local bars and often sharing a cab home. Many years later, Androcles found himself at a banquet where the main course was roast duck. (Aesop, of course, is best known as the founder of the Greek philosophy known as Cheap Irony.) Unable to stomach the thought that his feathered old friend might be integral to the repast, Androcles decided to leave the banquet, but on his way out stepped on a lion's paw and was summarily eaten. The moral? Eat what you're served and never share a cab with a duck.

Oh, all right. A lame duck (I suppose I ought to call it "flight-challenged") is one unable to keep up with the flock and who is thus easy prey for predators. The phrase "lame duck" was first applied on the London Stock Exchange in the 18th century to brokers who could not pay their debts. Beginning in 19th-century America, "lame duck" was used to describe a Congressional representative who had failed to hornswoggle the voters into re- electing him in November, but who was not due, under the Constitution, to actually be booted out until the following March. Thus freed of even the pretense of accountability to the voters, such "lame ducks" usually voted themselves a scandalous jackpot of perks, until a stop was put to the practice by the "Lame Duck Amendment" of 1934. Today, new Congresspeople take office in January, their defeated opponents no longer have an opportunity to loot and pillage on their way out, and thus Congress has become a temple of honesty. And you thought the duck story was ridiculous.


Dear Evan -- I hope you can help answer my query or direct me to a resources that might aid in my finding the answer. Here it is: How did the word "malarkey" earn its meaning? Please be forthright -- I am not afraid of the truth! -- Dave "no-nonsense" Malarkey, via the Internet.

Not afraid of the truth, eh? I find a fearless approach to the truth an admirable characteristic, but a little naive. In my experience, the truth is a pretty scary thing indeed -- just ask my accountant. Nosiree, you can have my share of the truth any day -- I'll stick with "Baywatch," thank you.

Now where were we? Oh yes, "malarkey." I think it's a grand name, myself. It has a nice sort of Irish lilt to it, and a good galloping rhythm. Of course, I imagine such a name would pose difficulties when it comes time to cash the old paycheck, bank tellers being a naturally suspicious lot. As a slang term, of course, "malarkey" means something which is, to quote the Oxford English Dictionary, ""humbug, nonsense and foolishness."

As to where "malarkey" as a slang term came from, all the major authorities draw a blank. The term first appeared in America in the 1920's, but there is no clear connection to any other word in English. The eminent British etymologist Eric Partridge suspected that it might be based on the modern Greek word "malakia," but no one else seems to agree with his theory. Mr. Partridge's editor and successor, Paul Beale, makes note of a Cockney slang term, "Madam Misharty," which means roughly the same thing as "malarkey" and may be based on a real person, in this case thought to be a fortune-teller.

If I had to take a guess, I'd say that "malarkey" is most likely Irish or Cockney, and quite possibly based on the name of someone notorious at the time for fraud or chicanery. But cheer up -- there's a bright side to this scenario. If the name stuck as a slang term, it's probably not because the original "Malarkey" was such a bad person, but because the word itself is fun to say.


Dressed to the Nines

Dear Evan: Recently, I have begun to question my own dearly-held cliches. The most baffling is "dressed to the nines." Nine what? And how far does one need to dress to get there? Can one in fact dress only to the eights or less? Please don't laugh -- I'm semi-serious. -- Bill Thorn, via the Internet.

Well, if your question is semi-serious, you've come to the right place, because I have quite a few semi-serious answers for you. Incidentally, I rarely laugh at readers' questions. For one thing, it's your job to laugh at my answers, and, for another, most of my readers are big, burly guys who don't cotton to being mocked. That's what my editor tells me, anyway.

There are, as I've implied, a whole slew of possible origins of "dressed to the nines," meaning to be dressed in an elegant or elaborate fashion. One theory is that it came from an Old English saying "dressed to the eyes," or to please the beholder, which, in the peculiar spelling of Old English, would have appeared "dressed to then eyne." Through a process called "metanalysis," in which letters from one word migrate over time to a neighboring word, "then eyne" might have become "the neyne" and then "the nines." A similar metanalytic process transformed "a napron" (related to "napkin") to our modern "an apron."

On the other hand, the number nine holds an exalted place in numerology, and might have been adopted in the distant past as a synonym for "superlative." "Dressed to the nines" would thus be equivalent to our modern "dressed to the max."

It's also possible that the phrase come from an old jeweler's phrase "nine nines fine," referring to gold of 99.9999999 percent purity, or that the phrase refers to the nine muses of classical mythology, or to the spiffy uniforms of the 99th Wiltshire Regiment in England, or, well, you get the idea. There is no one answer, so I guess you'll just have to pick the theory you like best. Personally, I like the one about 99 bottles of beer.

Mind Your P's & Q's

Dear Evan: I was wondering where the expression "Mind your P's and Q's" came from -- Sarah, Natrona Heights, PA.

First of all, I must say that I really like the card Sarah used to send in her question, which features a small dog evidently named Claudia. I'm a sucker for dog pictures.

As to where "mind your P's and Q's," meaning "be very careful" or "behave yourself" came from, I'm afraid that there is no clear answer, though folks have been saying it since the late 1700's. The consolation is that there are a number of fascinating theories, so you can pretty much take your pick of the following.

One theory is that the phrase comes from the practice in certain British pubs of tallying a customer's purchases on a blackboard behind the bar, with the notation "P" standing for "pints" and "Q" for quarts. If a customer failed to pay close attention and "mind his P's and Q's," he might well find by evening's end that the barkeep had padded his tab.

Another theory, drawn from the schoolroom, is that any child approaching the mystery of penmanship soon discovers that the lowercase "p" is devilishly easy to confuse with the lowercase "q." Thus, the theory goes, generations of teachers exhorting their small charges to "mind your P's and Q's" created a enduring metaphor for being attentive and careful. A similar theory centers on typesetters in old-fashioned printing shops, where the danger of confusing lowercase "p" and "q" was increased because typesetters had to view the typeset text backwards.

Still other theories tie the "P" to "pea" cloth (the rough fabric used in "pea jackets") and the "Q" to "queue," which meant a ponytail, either that of the fancy wigs worn by courtiers of the day or the real ponytails commonly worn by sailors. In the upscale version of this theory, young aristocrats were cautioned not to get the powder from their wigs on their jackets made of pea cloth. The sailor version has old salts advising newcomers to dip their ponytails in tar (a common practice, believe it or not), but to avoid soiling their pea jackets with the tar.


Dear Evan: I would like to share with you a word I discovered recently -- it has become a favorite of mine and thus a source of some slight annoyance to my husband (a gem of a man). The word in question is "uxorious." I came across it while reading a book at the cottage and I drew a complete blank. Since I have an enquiring mind, I called out to hubby, asking him to shed some light on the matter. To my astonishment, hubby was also perplexed and we were forced to contain our curiosity for a few days until we got back to the city (no dictionary at cottage). On the way home, we dropped in on a friend and after hurried hellos, asked about "the word" -- did anyone know what it meant? The sister of a good friend said, "The root is 'uxor' which is Latin for wife, so it has to do with some behavior pertaining to wife." Bright girl. We looked it up. And I love it. I've shared it with my female friends and they have added it to their vocabulary and that of their husbands. Please continue to spread the joy. -- Annabel Raynor, via the Internet.

What a lovely story. Incidentally, while you folks were whooping it up at the cottage, pestering the local wildlife and probably planting enough zucchini to choke the county highway system, I was whiling away my summer cataloguing each and every variety of car alarm in Manhattan, a task best tackled, I'm sure you know, when the mercury hits 98 degrees at 3 a.m.

Still, as I said, it's a lovely story. It has elements of James Thurber to it, but I must warn you that I detect a smidgen of Hitchcock, especially where you note that you and your friends have so helpfully added "uxorious" to your husbands' vocabularies. The definition of "uxorious" found in the dictionary, "doting upon or affectionately submissive towards one's wife," certainly sounds like the setup for a dandy murder mystery. Let's just say that I wouldn't turn my back on any zucchini if I were you.

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