Say Uncle: Definition Meaning and Origin

Last Updated on
June 30, 2023

In the rich tapestry of English idioms, "say uncle" holds a unique place. This phrase is an American idiom used primarily in children's games. It is an expression of surrender or submission, usually demanded by one child from another.

In short:

"Say uncle" is an American idiom signifying submission or surrender, commonly used in children's games.

What Does "Say Uncle" Mean?

The term "say uncle" is synonymous with admitting defeat. It's a way of saying, "I give up," or "You win." This idiom is often used in situations where an individual is expected to concede or acknowledge that they've been bested. The idiom also has a few variations, such as "cry uncle" or "scream uncle," all of which essentially convey the same sentiment of surrender.

  • It signifies capitulation or yielding to someone else's will.
  • The term is widely used in a playful or teasing context.
  • It can also be used metaphorically to denote giving up in a situation or challenge.

Where Does "Say Uncle" Come From?

Despite its popularity, the idiom's "say uncle" origins are unknown and debated among linguists and historians. One suggested origin for the phrase leads us back to ancient Rome. The Latin expression "Patrue, mi Patruissimo," which means 'Uncle, my best Uncle,' was allegedly spoken by children when they wanted to beg for mercy during a game or jest. However, there's no concrete evidence supporting this theory. But most of the evidence supports the claim that "Say Uncle" originated in America around the early 20th century. Despite its ambiguous origins, "Say Uncle" has persisted as a common phrase in American English, symbolizing capitulation or yielding.

Historical Example

"I remember having quarrels with kids at primary school, and they'd say: Well, will you say, uncle? And I never knew what it meant."

-The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway, 1926

10 Examples of "Say Uncle" in Sentences

Here are some examples illustrating how "say uncle" is used in different contexts:

  • John, having been outwitted by his younger sister in the game of chess, had to say uncle, and it did seem like he was going to need a lot more practice to beat her.
  • I won't say uncle, no matter how hard the challenge is.
  • Hey, if you manage to beat me in the arm wrestling game, then I'll say uncle and also wish you all the best!
  • After a prolonged arm-wrestling match, he finally said Uncle.
  • The company finally said, Uncle and settled the lawsuit.
  • Well, if you lose the bet, you'll have to say uncle and admit defeat, and trust me, that sucks.
  • Despite the pressure from her peers, she refused to say uncle.
  • The politician said uncle when the evidence of his corruption was revealed.
  • When will you say uncle and admit that you lost the argument?
  • Well, my bad for teasing him too much, but in the end, he had to say uncle and admit defeat.

Examples of "Say Uncle" in Pop Culture

"Say Uncle" has found its way into various aspects of popular culture.

Here are some examples:

  • In the movie "Interstellar," Cooper uses the phrase when wrestling with his son.
  • In the animated series "Steven Universe," there is an episode titled "Say Uncle."
  • The American sitcom "Friends" also used the phrase in a friendly wrestling match between Ross and Chandler.
  • In the popular series "Breaking Bad," Saul Goodman advises Jesse Pinkman to "say uncle" when he's being held by Hank.
  • The phrase is used in the "Seinfeld" episode "The Stranded," where George is persuaded to "say uncle."
  • In the "Simpsons" episode "The PTA Disbands," Bart Simpson makes Principal Skinner say uncle.
  • The crime novel "Say Uncle" by Eric Shaw Quinn uses the phrase as its title.
  • There's a film named "Say Uncle" directed by Peter Paige.

Other Ways to Say "Say Uncle" in Sentences

Several alternative expressions convey a similar meaning to "say, uncle."

Some of these include:

  • He had to throw in the towel when the task became too difficult.
  • She gave in after hours of heated debate.
  • After enduring the difficult situation, he finally surrendered.
  • When she realized she couldn't win the argument, she conceded defeat.
  • He admitted defeat when he realized his argument was baseless.
  • She had no choice but to wave the white flag when her opponent outwitted her.
  • After a brutal competition, he finally gave up.
  • Seeing the strength of her opponents, she had to yield.
  • He capitulated when he found no way to solve the riddle.
  • Despite her best efforts, she had to submit to her fate.

10 Frequently Asked Questions About "Say Uncle"

  • Is "say uncle" a formal or informal phrase?

It's generally considered informal and is mostly used in spoken English.

  • Is "say uncle" an American idiom?

Yes, "say uncle" is an American idiom with its roots in the 19th century.

  • Can "say uncle" be used in a serious context?

>While typically used in playful or informal situations, "say uncle" can be used metaphorically in a serious context to represent surrender or giving up.

  • What is a synonym for "say uncle"?

Some synonyms for "say uncle" include "throw in the towel," "surrender," or "give up."

  • Is "say uncle" used outside of the United States?

The phrase is widely understood due to American media, but it is not commonly used outside of the United States.

  • Can "say uncle" be considered offensive?

No, the term is not generally considered offensive. However, like any idiom, its appropriateness can depend on the context and relationship between the parties involved.

  • Is there a British equivalent of "say, uncle"?

A similar British idiom might be "throw in the sponge," referencing the boxing tradition of throwing a sponge into the ring to signal defeat.

  • How do I use "say uncle" in a sentence?

You can use "say uncle" to signify surrender or submission, typically in a playful or metaphorical context. For example, "Despite the pressure from his peers, he refused to say uncle."

  • Is "say uncle" outdated?

While the term might be less common in everyday language, it is still understood and used, particularly in American English.

  • What's the opposite of "say, uncle"?

The opposite would be a phrase indicating resistance or refusal to give up, such as "stand one's ground" or "hold firm."

Final Thoughts About "Say Uncle"

The idiom "say uncle" is a vibrant part of the English language, reflecting its capacity for playful metaphor and cultural specificity. Whether used in the playground or in popular media, it conveys an easily understood message of surrender or capitulation.

Key aspects of the phrase  "say uncle":

  • The idiom means to surrender or admit defeat.
  • It originated in the United States in the 19th century.
  • The phrase is used widely in popular culture, further cementing its place in English.

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