Monday, January 23, 2012

What About Bob?

A few weeks ago this blog dealt with various meanings of the word jack.  If, for some unaccountable reason, you missed “You Don’t Know Jack,” you’ll find it by clicking:

Now comes bob, claiming to be an equally versatile word, and demanding equal space.  Actually I have already dealt with a couple of bobs—bobsled and the British phrase Bob’s your uncle—in an earlier blog.  If you missed that, too, try: 

But that only scrapes the top of the bob-barrel.  There are many more bob-words that cry out for explanations.

As a noun and a verb, bob has a number of meanings, most of them derived from the 14th-century Middle English word bobbe, meaning a “bunch or a cluster” of something.  From that usage, by the 1570s bob came to mean a horse’s tail cut short, into a knot. It developed into a verb meaning “to cut short” and hence the “bobbed” short-hair style popular with women in the 1920s.  From that hairstyle came bobby pin, which was used to keep the bobbed hair in place.

It wasn’t long until bobby socks, a new style of hosiery that came to just above the ankles, were named because they were “bobbed,” or shortened, when compared to knee socks. First usage of bobby socks is attested in 1927, and bobby-soxer, meaning a teen-age girl (probably swooning over Frankie Sinatra) in 1944.

From the meaning of “cut short,” we have also derived bobtail, meaning an animal (or vehicle) with its tail shortened either naturally or artificially.  A bobcat is one such animal with a stubby tail.

Other bob usages have nothing to do with that meaning.

The British policeman is known as a bobby owing to the introduction of the Metropolitan Police Act in 1829 by Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel.  For the same reason British cops were also known as peelers. First appearance of bobby in the constabulary sense is traced to 1844.

The Brits also used bob to refer to a shilling (or several of them), before they got all uppity and adopted decimal currency, doing away with the shilling altogether.  This usage dates to the late 1700s and probably from the word bawbee, which was 17th-century slang for a half-penny.  That word stemmed from the French bas billon, meaning debased copper money. In the 18th century a “bobstick” was a shilling’s worth of gin.

Finally, Yessirreebob, is an American expression meaning “Sure!” or, if you’re Sarah Palin, “You betcha!”  Yessirree, in which the “ree” is added as an intensifer to “Yes, sir,” has been used at least since 1846. The earliest known example of the exclamation Yessirreebob was in 1876, and the bob is probably a euphemism for “God,” similar to “gosh” in phrases such as “Oh my gosh!”

Just in case you’re wondering, I have excluded from consideration that fencing material made of twisted metal strands with sharp points that is known in some parts of the country as bobwar. 

The Bob of Buffalo Bayou has known a number of Bobs in his lifetime, which has been an inexplicably long one, given his profusion of deleterious habits.  He honors a few of these Bobs in these deathless lines:
            Dylan is willin’
            And Crosby was crowin’.
            Crane was insane,
            And Cummings was goin’.

            Marley was gnarly,
            And Newhart a true heart.
            Feller was stellar,
            But Lemon was too tart.

            Fosse was bossy,
            And Hoskins too hesitant.
            Schieffer is briefer,
            And Dole ran for President.

            Guccione was phony,
            Geldof economical,
            Hope was no dope,
            Like Elliot, quite comical.

            Costas loves pastas,
            And Kane gave us Batman.
            Wills gave us thrills,
            And Denver? You know that man.

            Linder won’t hinder
            Great music from Gaudio.
            Barker seems starker, 
            And Burns needs no audio.

            Weinstein’s no Einstein,
            And Keeshan was moody.
            Woodward’s are good words,
            As for Smith: “Howdy Doody!”


  1. And what about 'bob' as in "bob war?" As one of your Facebook fans has already said. That's what they make fences out of in Texas.

    1. I think you may have overlooked my comment on "bobwar."