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YOU NEVER KNOW where researching the word “nepotism” will lead. Its practice has a rich heritage in Holy Mother the Church. It turns out that the word is directly related to “Bob’s your uncle.” And, re the Trump Administration, nepotism certainly deserves inclusion in my Etymology for our Times series.

According to Merriam-Webster, the word “nepotism” in its modern sense is defined as “favoritism (as in appointment to a job) based on kinship.”

Donald Trump, Ivanka and Jared Kushner. Image from

Examples Abound. Think Donald Trump and Javanka; Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, her husband Dick Jr.’s job at the Federal Aviation Administration, and her brother Erik Prince of Blackwater; Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, Ben Jr.’s wife Merlynn, and her $485,000 consulting contract with the government; Deputy Assistant Sebastian Gorka (since canned) and his wife Katharine’s gig at the Department of Homeland Security; ex-EPA chief Scott Pruitt and his wife Marlyn’s Chick-fil-A non deal; and (encouraging Legislative Branch/Executive Branch cooperation), husband Senator Mitch McConnell and wife Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao.

In retrospect, Jack Kennedy’s one-liner was merely wry humor: When he appointed his brother as Attorney General, JFK quipped that Bobbie “needs some solid legal experience and this job should provide it.”

The word nepotism is derived from nepote, a 17th-century variant of Italian nipote, “nephew.”

His Holiness and Kin. Which brings us directly to Holy Mother the Church. Notes Merrriam-Webster, “During his papacy from 1471–1484, Sixtus IV granted many special favors to members of his family, in particular his nephews. This practice of papal favoritism was carried on by his successors, and in 1667 it was the subject of Gregorio Leti’s book Il Nepotismo di Roma—titled in the English translation, The History of the Popes’ Nephews.

Pope Sixtus IV, 1414–1484, reigned as pontiff from 1471 until his death. This fresco by Melozzo da Forlì shows the pontiff with several of his family appointees.

“Shortly after the book’s appearance,” M-W continues, “nepotism began to be used in English for the showing of special favor or unfair preference to any relative by someone in any position of power, be it ecclesiastical or not.”

But the ecclesiastical thread is too entertaining to drop. According to Wikipedia, “Since the Middle Ages and until the late 17th century, some Catholic popes and bishops, who had taken vows of chastity, and therefore usually had no legitimate offspring of their own, gave their nephews such positions of preference as were often accorded by father to son.”

Pope Callixtus III, 1378-1458, reigned as pontiff from 1455 until his death. Uncle of Pope Alexander VII.

Wrote Catholic historian Ludwig von Pastor, “Except for his nepotism, Callixtus III deserves high praise….” The pontiff, head of the Borgia family (ah, those Borgias), made two of his nephews cardinals. One, Rodrigo, parlayed his position into becoming Pope Alexander VII. During his reign, Alexander VII elevated Alessandro Farnese, his mistress’s brother, to cardinal. Eventually, Farnese became Pope Paul III, elevating two of his nephews, age 14 and 16, to cardinalhood.

Pope Paul III, 1468–1549, reigned as pontiff from 1534 until his death. Triple portrait by Titian of Pope Paul III and two of his grandsons, neither of whom made pontiff. Sad.

Geez. At least we have a chance, come 2020 or maybe even sooner, to mitigate our nepotism quandary.

Nepotism, Brit Style. Quite apart from the Royal Family, England had its share of nepotism as well. Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, served as Prime Minister three different times over 13 years, 1885 to 1902. He’s also remembered as Arthur Balfour’s Uncle Bob.

Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, KG, GCVO, PC, FRS, DL, 1830–1903, British statesman, Conservative.

A member of Britain’s Conservative Party, Gascoyne-Cecil is credited with saying, “Whatever happens will be for the worse, and therefore it is in our interest that as little should happen as possible.”

Things that did happen included Gascoyne-Cecil appointing his nephew Arthur Balfour, in quick succession, President of the Local Government Board (1885), Secretary for Scotland (1886), and Chief Secretary for Ireland (1887).

Arthur James Balfour, 1st Earl of Balfour, KG, OM, PC, FRS, FBA, DL, British statesman, Conservative, nephew of Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil.

In 1902, when Gascoyne-Cecil resigned his third stint as Prime Minister, guess who succeeded him in this lofty position.

Full marks: his nephew Arthur Balfour; and, to this day, Brits quip, “Bob’s your uncle.”

Arthur Balfour served as British Prime Minister, 1902 until his resignation in 1905. You may recall his name in the 1917 Balfour Declaration, Britain’s support for establishing in Palestine a national home for the Jewish people. According to Wikipedia, “The declaration had two indirect consequences, the emergence of a Jewish state and a chronic state of conflict between Arabs and Jews throughout the Middle East.”

This assertion earns six Wikipedia citations from modern writers. “Bob’s your uncle” rates only one. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2018


  1. jlalbrecht64
    October 18, 2018

    This is super interesting. I’d looked up the “Bob’s your uncle” many times before, but never found this information. Excellent sleuthing. Thanks!

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