During the recent acrimony between Republicans and Democrats in their struggle to pass debt ceiling legislation, one financial analyst observed: “I don’t think there’s anyone on Wall Street who doesn’t believe that the people who are being difficult on Capitol Hill are ultimately going to say uncle.” “Uncle,” as you must remember from your playground wrestling days, is an American expression used to indicate submission when you’re fighting. Some people suggest it was the Democrats who said uncle first—but the Republicans didn’t even realize it.
Be that as it may, wouldn’t you like to know whose uncle is being referred to? The Online Etymological Dictionary says the phrase was first used in 1918 and is of “uncertain signification.”
The intrepid Michael Quinion, in his blog “World Wide Words,” won’t settle for such shilly-shallying. He proposes, but cannot prove, that “uncle” is a corruption of an Irish word—anacol—that means “an act of protecting, deliverance, mercy, safety,” derived from the Old Irish aingid (“protects”).
Another theory, suggested by William and Mary Morris (they have a college in Virginia named for them, don’t they?), wants us to believe that “uncle” goes back to a Latin expression, patrue mi patruissime, meaning “uncle, my best of uncles,” used as a shout for help by ancient Roman youths who got into trouble. Hmmm…that sounds like one of those New Yorker Magazine “shouts we bet never got shouted.”
One other possibility ties the phrase to a joke that appeared in U. S. newspapers in the 1890s: A man was given a parrot by his nephew. He tried to get the parrot to say “Uncle,” but the parrot wouldn’t speak a word, so he angrily yelled “Say ‘Uncle,’ you beggar!” and then, throttling the bird’s neck, he threw him into a pen with ten prize fowls. Later, fearful he had killed the parrot, he returned to the pen and found nine dead fowls with their necks wrung. The parrot was standing on the tenth, twisting its neck, and screaming, “Say ‘Uncle,’ you beggar, say ‘Uncle’!” (When I read this joke, I thought the punch line had been omitted, but apparently, that is it.)
The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, adopting his most avuncular style, has chosen to muse upon a variety of uncles:
My Uncle Sam
Is such a ham,
Decked out in red and white and blue.
I get a thrill,
And always will,
To hear him thunder, “I want you!”
Old Uncle Remus
Sat swapping tales, as was their habit.
Said Uncle Remus, “It would please us
If you told us about Jesus,
Then I will talk about Brer Rabbit.”
Do not pester
Or he might dynamite you,
Or, even worse,
Get out his hearse
And run you down to spite you.
He killed ‘em on TV.
Now he’s gone,
But still lives on,
Alive on DVD.
I’ve often heard it said that Stanislavski,
When he directed Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya,”
Liked to hum a few bars of Tchaikowsky
And “The Eyes of Texas Are Upon Ya’.”