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For some years now I've heard You're not the boss of me increasingly more often relative to the more "correct, natural" (to me, at least) You're not my boss. Thanks to the magic of NGrams, I've confirmed my suspicions that it's not just the company I keep... graph

At first I just thought the "boss of me" version was just a childish equivalent, but now I'm not so sure. If I extrapolate the graph (bearing in mind NGrams doesn't quite reach today yet anyway), it seems likely the new variant is already (or soon will be) the standard form. What's going on?

In case that's not considered a proper ELU question, I'll rephrase it as "What if anything do people perceive as different about the new version, which might be causing them to prefer it?".

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Ugh. I prefer either "I don't answer to you." or "Who are you to give me orders?". – dmckee Jul 20 '11 at 0:42
I realise this is an old question, but my own, instinctive, personal interpretation has always been that these two phrases are completely different and never interchangeable. The preposition of semantically really means ‘over’ here, and boss is used in a slightly abstracted way, to mean ‘someone in control over someone else’. So “You’re not the boss of me” = you’re not in control over me. “You’re not my boss”, on the other hand, is a simple statement of who is one’s direct superior at work. To me, they’re both standard, but entirely different things to say, in different situations. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 1 at 23:26

5 Answers 5

up vote 5 down vote accepted

"You're not the boss of me" emphasizes "me," and is something a child would say (or we imagine would say) to his parents. It's also often said by an adult to give the statement that connotation, sometimes in an ironic way.

"You're not my boss" is a bit more on-the-nose and declarative, whereas "you're not the boss of me" is more absolute, confrontational, and draws more upon the cultural shared knowledge of that phrase.

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I can understand why people don't, but I do sometimes wish everyone at ELU had age/sex/location in their profile. Per OP, I too think boss of me sounds child-like. But how much is that because I'm British, or over 30? Maybe it's just a standard phrasing to younger Americans. I imagine "pop" lyrics mainly reflect popular usage rather than create it, but I can't even swear to that - particularly in this case. I'm thinking boss of me sounds more "petulant" than "confrontational", but I really can't unthread this one myself. – FumbleFingers Jul 20 '11 at 14:50

The big spike at just after 2000 (i.e. 2001) most likely comes from the popularity of the TV show Malcolm in the Middle which has the title song Boss of me by They Might Be Giants, with the chorus:

You're not the boss of me now!

You're not the boss of me now!

You're not the boss of me now!

And you're not so big.

The TV show was very popular and has been broadcast all over the world.

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I know of Malcolm in the Middle, but never watched it or heard the theme song. From 2001 there's also the track He is the Boss of Me on Ecce Homo by The Hidden Cameras, which I must have listened to dozens if not hundreds of times by now. The phrasing originally struck me as odd. I've gotten used to it over time, but I still can't quite shake the sense of it being a slightly petulant childish way of putting things. – FumbleFingers Jul 20 '11 at 13:33
I would say the They Might be Giants song is most definitely petulantly childish. – Matt E. Эллен Jul 20 '11 at 14:29

You are exactly right, FumbleFingers, that "you're not the boss of me" is a childish (or childhood) equivalent of "you're not my boss." In fact, in southeast Texas, where I spent the first 16 years of my life, it was a standard riposte in Childspeak, covering much the same ground as "You're not my mother," but without the demeaning acknowledgment that your mother was in fact the boss of you.

By way of illustrating the difference in core usage, I offer these two exchanges:

Babysitter: It's 8:00—time to put away your toys and get ready for bed.

Five-year-old Sven: You're not my mother!


Nervous ten-year-old goody-two-shoes: If you don't stop playing with those matches, I'm telling!

Ten-year-old Sven: You're not the boss of me!

Although "you're not the boss of me" could be addressed by a child to someone much older—a teenager, say, or even an adult stranger or (in moments of irrational fury) a parent—it was far more frequently used as a response to other children of the same age, or to siblings.

The phrase was pronounced with a marked stress on the first and last words:

You're not the boss of me!

which emphasized (as Ascendant's answer notes) the asserted equivalence in status between "you" and "me." In contrast, "You're not my boss" and "You're not my mother" dedicate their entire focus to the position of "you" in the social hierarchy, while "me" very nearly disappears from consideration. "You're not the boss of me" is a much more effective way to frame the case that the other kid has no business trying to tell you what to do. Those young people really had it figured out.

Very early occurrences of the phrase

A look into the earliest occurrences of the phrase turns up several instances of it from long ago—and from quite distant geographical locations. From "As by Fire," in The Church (London, March 1883):

His sister was going to put her arms around him, but he whirled, and facing her with a very angry face, snapped —

"Let me alone ; you are not the boss of me now, I tell you, and I'm going to do as I please."

From A.C. Stevenson, Unspotted From the World (Chicago, New York, London, 1899):

"Blacksmithing is honorable enough, but ignorance and selfishness are not. You ought to be made to stop going with him, that's all."

"Well, I guess you're not the boss of me."

From Louise Hale, "The Trunk in the Attic," in The Smart Set: A Magazine of Cleverness (New York, May 1912):

Sade says not to write you any bad news so I won't. I am leaving tonight. Twelve years old, and I never rode on a car or a steamboat, so it's time I did—and I can't live in the house with that Johnnie—without you. Mother, I'll die if I can't see you. Johnnie is not the boss of me, is he? But don't you worry, mother dear; he tore the biggest hole in the seat of his Sunday pants. (A nice “man of the house”!) I just am sick to see you.

And from Western Australia, Parliamentary Debates (Perth, 1927) [combined snippets]:

My personal view is that it might be advisable to disband the Routes Advisory Committee, and if necessary its members could be attached to the Traffic Branch. The trouble is that the traffic has too many bosses. I am reminded of a grandson of mine, about three or four years old, who came to visit me, and on one occasion I was chiding him for doing something. He looked up into my face and said, "You are not the boss of me." Even a child objects to too many in control of him, and such a situation arouses in him a spirit of antagonism.

The mysterious upsurge in usage in recent decades

The rise of "You're not the boss of me" in published writing since the 1980s is a mystery to me. I must not be reading the right books, because I haven't noticed it showing up at all frequently in print—and I haven't heard an adult say it, except as a joke, ever. I like the suggestion in Matt E. Эллен's answer that a TV show theme song contributed to its rise since the turn of the century, but clearly it was already gaining popularity during the two decades before that.

Individual Google Books matches for the phrase "not the boss of me" over the years 1970–2008 don't yield any obvious candidates for credit or blame, so if there is an explanation to be had, I don't think it will come from Google Books.

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I agree with much of this, but I'm still not convinced anyone has provided a clear explanation of why YNTBOM sounds "childish" (perhaps it's actually not, and we're just assigning that label to a form we find "awkward"). After all, you have your Sven saying "You're not my mother!", which sounds perfectly credible coming from a five-year-old. But if he'd said "You're not the mother of me!" I'd probably think Sven was some kind of linguistic prodigy who hadn't quite got the experience to avoid all non-idiomatic constructions. – FumbleFingers Mar 1 at 21:39
In both cases, young Sven was just repeating the formulations he heard around him; the original linguistics prodigy is lost to time. But it may be relevant that boss as a noun is a lot less clearly defined in kids' minds than mother is. As a child I probably derived the idea of its meaning from the verb phrase "boss [one] around," not from the idea of an "employee supervisor"—to the extent that I might well have considered boss to be equivalent to the variable status "bosser around." Anyway, I can't remember ever having heard a kid tell another kid in exasperation, "You're not my boss!" – Sven Yargs Mar 1 at 23:22
Very cogently put. I'm convinced, ty. – FumbleFingers Mar 1 at 23:38

What is the problem? Both are grammatically correct. You're not my boss! is more succinct, but succinctness is really not the point when you're trying to make a dramatic statement like You're not the boss of me!. I imagine that You're not the boss of me! has become more prevalent because it draws out an emphasis on the 1st person and sounds more dramatic, though I'm sure it really is more that people are becoming more familiar with the dramatic version and so it more easily rolls off the tongue than the succinct version.

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I never said I had a problem. But since you ask, I could be concerned about the grammaticality of boss of me. Switching to a different noun and removing the negation may clarify the issue. You're my hero is fine, but I really don't think You're the hero of me would be acceptable to anyone. Just because you've heard a usage many times doesn't automatically make it grammatically correct (though if nearly everyone uses a form, eventually it must become correct). – FumbleFingers Jul 20 '11 at 1:40
Sorry if my "What is the problem?" appeared hostile; I was just trying to figure out what you see as wrong with boss of me. Grammatically, X's Y and Y of X are identical in this situation. You seem to be making the fallacy of there being a 1-1 correlation with what sounds right and what is grammatically correct. You're my hero and You're the hero of me are both grammatically correct, but the prevalent behavior is to not use the personal pronoun like that, so the prevalent behavior sounds right and the uncommon behavior sounds incorrect. – rubergly Jul 20 '11 at 5:44
"X's Y" and "Y of X", while both can be correct, can have slightly different meanings. If you use "Gotham City" as X, it becomes more clear. "Hero of Gotham City" vs. "Gotham City's hero" have slightly different (but possibly overlapping) meanings. The former can mean a hero that came from or resides in GC, regardless of whether the citizens of GC appreciate it, or even reap any benefits. "Boss of Gotham City" and "Gotham City's Boss" also have slightly different connotations. The former seems colder, more objective. I think the same is true with "Boss of me" vs "My boss." – Flimzy Jul 20 '11 at 6:40
@rubergly: oic. Or rather, I don't exactly. Other examples notwithstanding, there's still the issue of the xxx of me, which for many xxx's is at the very least 'odd'. Though I note that for xxx=making, for xample, it's the other way round. How come a non-grammatical issue makes so much difference to 'acceptability', and how do we identify which xxx's work which way round? – FumbleFingers Jul 20 '11 at 12:56
@Flimzy: Interesting point about xxx of yyy sounding colder/more objective. I've upvoted that because it's the first "differentiation" offered, not because I recognise and agree the truth thereof (I simply don't know). But hopefully others will either disput the point or upvote as well, giving me an idea as to whether there's anything in the idea. – FumbleFingers Jul 20 '11 at 13:37

Several phrases in the English language are grammatically correct yet sound odd. I do not know if 'You are not the boss of me' is one of them; I do know that I, for one, would never dream of saying or writing it.

Rather than obscure theme music, however, I attribute the encroaching ubiquity of this garish construction to its popularity in lowbrow social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, where English has devolved into an entirely different beast.

The technical, if questionable, appeal of the phrasing is obvious, at least, to my mind: by putting a greater distance between the words 'boss' and 'me/my', the 'of me' variant lends the statement authority by accentuating the phrase's semantic value, and introducing a direct expression of possession.

I agree with the poster who said that it sounds petulant.

Other grating examples: You are not the master of me;You are not the ruler of me;You are not the keeper of me.

I have had the great misfortune of chancing upon each of these phrases online.

At what point, I wonder, does the construction partake of such absurdity that familiarity cannot undo its unkind assault on the ears?

Whilst the monstrosities above may come to stand, in that they are mere transpositions of the noun/verb 'boss' with other nouns/verbs of the same nature, will we ever have to abide you are not the soulmate of me; you are not the friend of me; you are not the lover of me?

I believe the frequent use of the word 'boss' as a verb serves to accustom speakers to its versatility, which raises less objections to the phrase 'you are not the boss of me', than the noun 'lover' raises in the phrase 'you are not the lover of me', because the word 'lover' is not a verb.

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