Say Uncle

Of Course I Know Where It Came From.

My Uncle Invented It.

Dear Evan: You wouldn’t happen to know the origin of the use of the word “Uncle” as a term to indicate surrender, would you? — Anthony.

Ignoring for the moment the lack of confidence in me implicit in the phrasing of your question, I’ll just say, “Yes I do. I think I do, anyway.” Actually, there are several theories about “uncle,” which, incidentally, I am asked about every six months or so. If there were a Hall of Fame for word origin questions, “uncle” would be a shoo-in.

The last time someone asked about “uncle,” I mentioned a marvelous book called “The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren,” an exhaustive study of schoolyard rituals and folklore in Great Britain written by Iona and Peter Opie and published by Oxford University Press. I was somewhat surprised to discover the Opies do not list the “cry uncle” ritual in their book. A quick check of the New Shorter Oxford dictionary, however, revealed that “cry uncle” is largely a North American ritual.

Checking other sources for the origins of “cry uncle” does provide support for one of the Opies’ most interesting assertions, that childhood games and rituals are often hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of years old. It seems that while “crying uncle” is today regarded as an Americanism, its origins go all the way back to the Roman Empire. Roman children, when beset by a bully, would be forced to say “Patrue, mi Patruissimo,” or “Uncle, my best Uncle,” in order to surrender and be freed.

As to precisely “why” bullies force their victims to “cry uncle,” opinions vary. It may be that the ritual is simply a way of making the victim call out for help from a grownup, thus proving his or her helplessness. Alternatively, it may have started as a way of forcing the victim to grant the bully a title of respect — in Roman times, your father’s brother was accorded nearly the same power and status as your father. The form of “uncle” used in the Latin phrase (“patrue”) tends to support this theory, inasmuch as it specifically denoted your paternal uncle, as opposed to the brother of your mother (“avunculus”), who occupied a somewhat lower rung in patrilineal Roman society.

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