What Is The Meaning Of “Saying Uncle”?

You may have heard someone tell another person “say uncle!” while most likely wrestling and fooling around.  Have you ever wondered what this saying actually means?  As a lot of people can assume, this term is meant as a casual way to tell someone to give up what they’re doing, or to admit they are the “weakest link”, usually in games of physical strength.

History Of The Saying “Say Uncle”

The term “say uncle” originated in the United States and Canada, and has long been used to demand the submission of an opponent.  This term is usually used in wrestling matches and other physical games such as tickling matches.  This term has been regarded as a “safe word” in the United States and Canadian culture for years.

Apparently, there are multiple theories on where “say uncle” originally came from.  Some believe that it is originally a term brought by Irish immigrants who flooded Canada and New England in the early 19th century.  Another, less likely theory is that it was a phrase used by troublemaking Romans in the Roman Empire.

Another origin of the term is based on an English joke about a parrot who had an owner that demanded him to say uncle, but it would not.  Eventually, the owner half-twisted its neck and said “say uncle, you beggar!” and threw it with his other birds.  He found his parrot later with only one fowl alive with the parrot screaming “say uncle, you beggar!”

Evolution Of “Saying Uncle”

One last origin story of the term “say uncle” stems from confusion in language translation- sometimes English-speaking people would say “time out” as a request to take a break from any hostilities.  This could have been misinterpreted by Spanish-speaking people to mean “tio”, which means “uncle” in Spanish.

Whatever the true origin of the phrase, it eventually developed into a phrase heard commonly in many American and Canadian households.  Even more interestingly, this phrase spread to the Arabian Peninsula and is used there as well.  Whatever the phrase’s origin, it stands clear that it became quite popular in Western societies as a term to request mercy.

This phrase is mostly a North American term that admits defeat when expressed and was written in English in 1918.  Since this time, people have debated the term’s true origin and how the custom of demanding one say uncle as a sign of withdrawal started.  One thing’s for sure- almost everyone has said it or has demanded it be said at one point in their lives.