England

The people behind famous phrases

Robert Cecil Gascoigne, Britomartis and James Gordon Bennett Image copyright Getty Images

Some of the most famous English phrases use people's names to convey a meaning, from the Bob of "Bob's your uncle" to the Gordon Bennett we call upon when we must not swear. But are these expressions, and others like them, based on real people? And if so, how did they become household names?


Betty Martin

The phrase "all my eye and Betty Martin" is used to declare something as nonsense.

There are a number of theories as to who the mystery woman - or indeed man - was, says Benjamin Norris, assistant editor of the Oxford English Dictionary.

"One idea is that it stems from Latin words used to call on the goddess of Crete 'O mihi Britomartis', or St Martin of Porres 'O mihi, beate Martinehe'," he said.

Eric Scaife from the Yorkshire Dialect Society said: "St Martin was the patron saint of innkeepers, so if you had had a few it may sound different - you would be talking rubbish!"

Could it be that British soldiers or sailors abroad heard locals uttering these Latin words in disbelief and anglicized them?

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Could Betty Martin be versions of the Latin for St Martin or the goddess of Crete Britomartis?

"I suspect she was a character of the lusty London of 1770s and no record of her exists," wrote lexicographer Eric Partridge in his Dictionary of Catchphrases (1977).

Mr Norris said in northern England the phrase is sometimes uttered as "all my eye and Peggy Martin".

"It seems relatively unlikely that we will be able to discover the identity of the individual in question for sure," said Mr Norris.


Bob's your uncle

The term is used to mean "and there you have it" or the equivalent of the French "et voilĂ ".

Its origin could have been a satirical swipe at Conservative prime minister Lord Salisbury's controversial decision in 1887 to appoint his nephew Arthur Balfour as chief secretary for Ireland, wrote journalist Fraser McAlpine, in his BBC America Anglophenia blog.

Mr Norris agreed: "In light of Lord Salisbury's Christian name being Robert - 'Bob', of course, being a familiar form of this name - and the appointment being seen by many at the time as nepotistic this theory is an appealing one.

"Though, if it is true, it does not easily explain why the phrase is first recorded in the 1930s."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Is Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, the third Marquess of Salisbury the inspiration for the phrase "Bob's your uncle"?

McApline and Mr Scaife have also both questioned whether the phrase could have something to do with Sir Robert Peel, who created the Metropolitan Police Force - where officers were commonly known as "bobbies".

"Perhaps he had a roguish nephew who was believed to have been kept from prison by his uncle," McAlpine wrote.

"Then there's the name itself, which appears to have been used as a catch-all name for someone you don't know, in much the same way that Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and that lot constantly referred to, well, anyone, as Clyde," he wrote.


Murphy's law

This expression conveys the sense that "if anything can go wrong it will go wrong".

It was created by aerospace engineer Captain Edward A Murphy while he was working on a series of US Air Force studies to test human tolerance to acceleration and deceleration, according to Brewer's Dictionary of Irish Phrase & Fable.

He coined the phrase after he observed someone setting up an experiment that required the attachment of 16 accelerometers, according to Brewers.

Image copyright Unknown
Image caption Captain Edward A Murphy is thought to be behind his eponymous "law"

Each consisted of a sensor that could be attached to its mount in two different ways - and the subject had attached all of them the wrong way round.

"It is quite widely accepted as true and it also fits the chronology of our evidence for the phrase, with the earliest recorded use of Murphy's law in Genetic Psychology Monographs: 1951," said Mr Norris.


Davy Jones

The expression "to go to Davy Jones's locker" means to be drowned at sea.

"This item of nautical slang is shrouded in mystery, though we do know that the figure of Davy Jones was seen to represent the spirit of the ocean, sometimes even being interpreted as essentially a sea-devil," said Mr Norris.

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Davey Jones's locker is a nautical phrase meaning to drown at sea

The use of Davy Jones's locker to refer to the depths of the sea, frequently considered as the graveyard of those who have drowned, has been around since 18th Century, he said.

For instance, in his 1751 work Peregrine Pickle, Tobias Smollett refers to Davy Jones as "the fiend that presides over all the evil spirits of the deep".


Gordon Bennett

This man's name is often used in place of a swear word when making an exclamation of anger, surprise or frustration.

There were two famous Gordon Bennetts who might have been the source - a father and son.

James Gordon Bennett senior (1795-1872) was a Scottish-born journalist, famous in the US for founding the New York Herald and conducting the first ever newspaper interview.

His son, of the same name, was something of an international playboy. Mr Scaife described him as "a dandy... known for driving fast cars and causing consternation and surprise".

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption James Gordon Bennett junior (1841-1918) had a reputation for outrageous antics

Gordon Bennett used his inheritance to sponsor the Bennett Trophy in motor racing from 1900 to 1905, and in 1906 established a hot-air balloon race that is still held today.

He holds the Guinness Book of Records entry for "Greatest Engagement Faux Pas".

One very drunken evening he turned up late to a posh party held by his future in-laws, and ended up urinating into a fireplace in full view of everyone. The engagement, unsurprisingly, was broken off.

However Mr Norris said of the Gordon Bennett expression: "It seems most likely to be a euphemistic substitution for 'gorblimey', which is itself a phonetic rendering of a colloquial or regional pronunciation of 'God blind me'."


This story was inspired by phrases sent in by readers of England's oddest phrases explained.

More on this story

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites