I have heard that phrase recently on this YouTube video "Why We Row (Inspirational)" and I can assume what it means, but I just don't understand it on the context of the speech.

... don't be suprised if someone decides to flip the script and take a pass on yelling uncle, and then suddenly as the old saying goes, we got ourselves a game.

1 Answer 1


Yelling uncle means to surrender. To take a pass on yelling uncle means to not give in time, to keep playing.

Dear Word Detective: I was recently watching an old Little Rascals short in which Alfalfa was bested in a wrestling match by Porky. Since Porky is much smaller and younger than Alfalfa this was rather humorous. As Porky sat on Alfalfa's chest he told Alfalfa to say "Uncle" before he would let him up. How did the word "Uncle" come to mean "I surrender?" -- B. Kent, via the internet.

Revisiting the Golden Age of American Culture, are we? Count me in. As a matter of fact, I am seriously considering writing a book entitled "Everything I Need to Know I Learned from the Three Stooges." Nyuk nyuk. Anyway, your question struck a chord with me because I recall spending the better part of my childhood "saying uncle" to a seemingly endless series of larger, stronger opponents. And that was just in my immediate family.

The exact origin of "say uncle" or "cry uncle," an American invention first appearing in written English around 1918, is unclear, but there are, as usual, some interesting theories. One theory posits that "uncle" is actually a mangled form of the Irish word "anacol," meaning "protection" or "safety," making a demand from an aggressor to "cry uncle" equivalent to the thug demanding that his victim "cry for help" as a signal of surrender. There's no real evidence to support this theory, but there certainly was no lack of recent Irish immigrants in the U.S. around the turn of the century, so it's not entirely implausible.

The other popular theory about "cry uncle" suggests that the phrase may actually be thousands of years old, and that its origins go all the way back to the Roman Empire. According to this theory, 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 Ancient Roman bullies forced their victims to "cry uncle," opinions vary. It may be that the ritual was 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.

Apparently "Douglas Wilson over at the American Dialect Society has found a cite as early as 1891, still only in the US".

The audio is originally from a 2009 commercial for the Versus sports channel that's been recycled many times for many sports since.

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    As your quoted text implies, cry and say (and call, familiar to me but not mentioned there) are more common than yell. Latterly it's also used to mean "to vomit" - presumably an admission of defeat in the face of too much alcohol. Commented Nov 11, 2011 at 13:29

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