A New York Times article yesterday about Google Book Search features some research I did on the petulant phrase "You're not the boss of me!" This is an expression that many people suppose is rather recent — some might have first come across it in the past five or ten years, while others might fancy that this bit of kid-speak is restricted to their own family usage. But using Google Book Search, it's easy to find examples all the way back to 1883.
The 1883 quote is from a story for young readers called "As by Fire," which appeared in the British periodical The Church. In the story, a boy named Harry is bossed around by his older sister until he reaches a breaking point:
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."
The usage in the 1883 story is strikingly similar to how it has appeared in contemporary American pop culture, such as in the song "Boss of Me" by They Might Be Giants, used as the theme song for the TV show "Malcolm in the Middle" from 2000 to 2006. The chorus of the song goes, "You're not the boss of me now, and you're not so big!" (TMBG songwriter John Flansburgh has said the song is about childhood memories of his older brother.) And the year before "Malcolm in the Middle" debuted, notorious White House intern Monica Lewinsky told Barbara Walters, "From the time I was 2 years old, one of my first phrases was, with my hands on my hips, 'You're not the boss of me!'"
The boss in "the boss of me" is a fine old Americanism, coming from the Dutch word baas meaning "master, foreman." To quote another song by They Might Be Giants, "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" (originally popularized by The Four Lads back in 1953), "Even old New York was once New Amsterdam." And it was in New Amsterdam that Dutch baas began to transform into American boss. It shows up in mid-seventeenth century sources about colonial interactions between New England and New Netherland (the mid-Atlantic region where the Dutch settled).
The domineering sense of boss seems to have remained an under-the-radar localism for a couple of centuries. Noah Webster doesn't mention it in his 1828 dictionary, giving only the older (and etymologically unrelated) meaning, "a stud or knob; a protuberant part." By 1848, however, John Russell Bartlett noted the spread of the term in his Dictionary of Americanisms: "A master, an employer of mechanics or laborers. It probably originated in New York, and is now used in many parts of the United States." From the mid-nineteenth century on, boss caught fire, soon developing specific uses in the criminal underworld and the political overworld. Corrupt "Boss" Tweed dominated New York politics in the 1860s, setting the template for future political bosses... not to mention political czars.
Boss came to be used as a verb as well (as in boss around) — and as a colloquial adjective, too, originally meaning "chief" (applied to persons) but eventually gaining a more generic usage. The Dictionary of American Regional English traces the development of the adjective, giving examples like this 1880 quote about the regional speech of North Carolina: "If a coast man wants to express the superlative degree he says 'That is a "Boss" log or a "Boss" suit'." And a word-list from Nebraska in the 1916 issue of Dialect Notes defines boss as "extra good," as in "The pancakes at that boarding house are boss." In American youth slang, adjectival boss really took off in the '60s, as in the 1965 song "Boss Hoss" by garage-rockers The Sonics, wherein a new car is described as "a real boss hoss."
Given that these different senses of boss have been floating around in American English for a century or two, it shouldn't be too surprising to find "you're not the boss of me" appearing as early as the 1880s. And the expression does appear to be a true-blue Americanism — even though the story "As By Fire" appeared in a British publication, the boy Harry is described as coming from "a New-England village," so the anonymous author was likely a Yank. It makes sense that it's an American development, considering the longstanding national sentiment that you should always be your own boss. Wasn't the Declaration of Independence simply a more eloquent version of "You're not the boss of me"?
Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society.Click here to read other articles by Ben Zimmer