Final Word

A reprimand or not a reprimand – what’s in a word?


The letters of “reprimand” by President Jacob Zuma to three cabinet ministers “do not constitute a reprimand by any normal understanding of the word”.

This was the assessment of official opposition leader Mmusi Maimane of the letter to each of the three cabinet ministers involved in the Nkandla affair. It came after the Public Protector ruled and then the Constitutional Court then instructed that they should be reprimanded by the President.

Who got it right, Maimane or Zuma who seems to think just saying to the ministers: “Now regard yourself as having been dressed-down or slapped on the wrist?”

Let’s start at the beginning – the origin of the word ‘reprimand’.

‘Reprimand’ arrived in English in the mid-17th century from the French word réprimande, via Spanish from Latin’s reprimenda, meaning ‘things to be held in check’, or to be ‘repressed’.

The dictionary definition of ‘reprimand’, according to Merriam-Webster, is “a severe or formal reproof”, to which the adds “… by a person of power”. According to the Oxford Dictionaries website it is “a formal expression of disapproval”.

About the “person of power” there, in this instance, need not be any argument. The “formal reproof” and “formal expression of disapproval” part is a totally different story altogether and we leave it to individual readers to decide for themselves.

We would, however, suggest that there are two possibilities – the ministers either have an ‘uncle Bob’ or they were used as ‘whipping boys’. Whatever your choice, “a person of power” was, or is, involved.

Uncle Bob

We all know the expression ‘Bob’s your uncle’, generally meaning ‘there is no problem’ or that someone is looking out for you.

From the Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms we learn that the phrase probably has its roots deeply in a phenomenon we heard a lot about in South Africa in recent years – ‘nepotism’ .

It tells us that “Bob is a familiar form of the name Robert. The origin of the phrase is often said to be in the controversial appointment in 1887 of the young Arthur Balfour (39) to the important post of Chief Secretary of Ireland by his uncle, Lord Salisbury, whose first name was Robert.”

This explanation is the most widely accepted one for the origin of the phrase. There are also other contenders as The Phrase Finder website tells us it “is one of those phrases that keep etymologists off the street corners”, and despite considerable research, no-one is sure of its origin.

An alternative guess is that it derives from a slang term, ‘all is bob’, meaning all is well, which was recorded in 1785 in Captain Francis Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.

Be that as it may, one the most common connotations attached to ‘Bob’s your uncle’ remains – “don’t worry, you’ll be looked after”. 

If this is your conclusion about the ‘reprimand’ of the three ministers, you will also probably agree with Mr Maimane’s assessment of President Zuma’s letter.

Whipping boys

If you disagree with the leader of the opposition, you might be of the opinion that the ministers are being used as ‘whipping boys’ to protect the president.

Like ‘reprimand’, the term ‘whipping boy’ also dates back to the mid-17th century when a boy from the ranks of the ‘commoners’ could be educated with a young prince. The boy’s main function was to be punished instead of the prince when he misbehaved.

Whipping boys stemmed from the idea of the Divine Right of Kings, which stated that kings were appointed by God and answerable to God alone.

But, as might also be the case with cabinet ministers taking the rap for their boss, there was often also an upside to being the whipping boy. William Murray, whipping boy for the prince who would become King Charles, in 1626 was moved into the palatial Ham House and in 1643 King Charles made him the 1st Earl of Dysart.

Final word

And, just for in case you wondered where the word ‘nepotism’ for patronage bestowed or favouritism shown on the basis of family relationships or friendship comes from, you can thank the Roman Catholic Church for that one.

‘Nepotism’ came to us from the French word népotisme via the Italian nepotismo, which in turn got it from the Latin nepote for nephew. Catholic popes and bishops in the Middle Ages often bestowed privileges on their legitimate nephews and their own illegitimate children, who they also called “nephews”.

It is said to have started under the papacy of Sixtus IV (1471-1484) who granted many special favours to members of his family. By 1667 it was the subject of Gregorio Leti's book Il Nepotismo di Roma (its English translation titled The History of the Popes’ Nephews.)

After the book’s appearance, ‘nepotism’ became the English term for special favours or unfair preference dished out to relatives by people in positions of power.

by Piet Coetzer

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