The word in the title, pronounced ˈbɒbzidaɪ, is one I have only ever heard from New Zealanders. There is even a folk group of this name, but I am not sure if they are from NZ or Aus. You can see them in the picture. The word means “a great fuss” and is usually used in the phrases “to kick up bobsy-die” and “to play bobsy-die”.

According to the OED the word started out life as Bob’s-a-dying in the UK (first OED citation: 1829). Thomas Hardy seems to have been fond of the expression. He has two citations in the OED entry. It also appears in a work called Northumberland Words (1892), so it seems to have been used fairly widely in England at one time.

I wonder if the UK version is still in use anywhere and also where on earth it came from in the first place. The OED is silent on its origins.

Update: I have just consulted my copy of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1989, 14th ed.) Unfortunately, it does not list Bob’s-a-dying, but it does have an entry for bobbery, which also means “a great fuss”. The OED also lists this word and its etymology is:

According to Col. Yule, and others, an Anglo-Indian representation of Hindi Bāp re ! O father!, a common exclamation of surprise or grief. Forby has it in 1830 as East Anglian dialect; and it has been plausibly (as to the form) referred to Spanish boberia folly; but the evidence for its origination in India is decisive.

Curiouser and curiouser.

5 thoughts on “Bobsy-die

  1. Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary in 1898 recorded
    BOB’S -A-DYING at “Nhb, Yks, Dor ,Dev”
    Also bobs-a-dial, bobs-a-dilo e.Yks
    A great row or racket; boisterous merriment.

  2. What’s the origin of BOB’S YOUR UNCLE? I first heard it in the movie, The World’s Fastest Indian.

  3. Judy,

    Here is what Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable has to say:

    The phrase was occasioned by A.J.Balfour’s promotion by his uncle Robert (Lord Salisbury), the Tory Prime Minister, to the post of Chief Secretary for Ireland…..The suggestion of nepotism was difficult to ignore.

    BTW, Brewer is a most dangerous book. It can magic away hours of your life.

  4. I was spurred to research this because a friend of mine had just used that exact phrase. I had never heard it used previously in Australia in last 22 years. It was a term that I remember my Father used in England – typically 50+ years ago. He had served in India and Burma during WW2. I recollect that when he socialised with my Uncle who had actually served in the Indian Army, they would both use that term after having enjoyed a few glasses of cider!
    It was only hearing my friend use the term that triggered me to research it. From the origins of my Father and Uncle having served in India and their common use of the term – I would suggest it had originated from that region and was possibly a bastardisation of some local vernacular.

  5. On page 81 of Time/Life Book’s “Fighting Sail” book in their series on “The Seafarers” it describes how in Nelson’s day captured ships and their cargoes were sold off by the High Court of The Admiralty, the proceeds of which were distributed amongst officers and crew by a complex formula which could leave a common seaman with a large some of money. To Quote the book; “A few wise sailors used such prize money to purchase their release from Navy service. But most were content to blow it all on a stupendous drunken bash that they aptly termed a “Bobs’s-a-dying”.
    With regard to the Bush Band “Bobsy-Die” I found the word in the Pocket Oxford Dictionary, 5th Edition, Aust. NZ addendum. Thanks for posting our photo, although that was taken some 35 years ago. Still going.. Just.

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