Q&A: Happy as Larry

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week we are as happy as pigs in mud and Larry is happy too!

Q: Hey AWC, can you ask me how I’m feeling?

A: Ah, sure. How are you feeling?

Q: I’m as happy as Larry.

A: Okay great.

Q: Do you see where this is going?

A: You’d like to know who Larry is and why he’s so happy, wouldn’t you?

Q: Yes please.

A: Well first, let’s take a moment to note that Larry isn’t the only happy simile in the pack – he’s joined by “happy as a lark”, “happy as a clam”, “happy as a pig in mud”, “happy as a sandboy” and even “happy as the day is long”.

Q: Larks seem pretty happy flying about, and pigs, sure. But clams and sandboys?

A: Yes, it’s all an odd mix. The original clam phrase was “happy as a clam at high tide/water” – from the New England area of the US around 1830.

Q: Why is a clam so happy at high tide?

A: Well, because at low tide they’re exposed to predators. Once the water rises, they’re no longer sitting ducks.

Q: Sorry, what’s this about ducks now?

A: Well actually, people do occasionally say “happy as a duck in water” too. In fact, this “as happy as an X in Y” format is certainly not exhaustive. There’s even a saying “as happy as a duck in Arizona” – which means to be UNhappy.

Q: Oh, is that due to ducks not agreeing with Arizona’s laws on healthcare?

A: Um no, it’s because it’s a desert.

Q: Ah yep, that makes more sense.

A: Uh huh.

Q: Actually, speaking of sand – to be as happy as a “sandboy” I’m guessing is like a kid playing at the beach, having a great time, yeah?

A: Nope. A “sandboy” was traditionally a young man who delivered sand to pubs (used to soak up the spills). They were paid in alcohol, hence their reputation for being “happy”. The phrase dates from the early 1800s.

Q: And now, what about Larry?

A: Americans may not be too familiar with the phrase, but the rest of the English-speaking world is. And it would seem that it originated in the latter half of the 19th century right here in this part of the world – first recorded by New Zealand writer G. L. Meredith in 1875.

Q: Wow, a locally-sourced phrase! But who is Larry?

A: This is where the fog rolls in. There are a couple of possibilities. In one corner we have Larry Foley – Australian boxer during the 1870s, who famously went undefeated throughout his career. He’s up against the word “larrikin” – Australian/NZ slang for a boisterous young man – as well as the word “larrie” which in certain parts of England at that time meant a joke or jest.

Q: Surely it could have been a combination of all those things?

A: That’s true. But if you had to pick a Larry, it’s likely to have been Mr Foley, the 19th century bare-knuckled pugilist from Sydney.

Q: Pugilist?

A: It’s another word for boxer – direct from Latin “pugil”.

Q: Oooooh that explains why my uncle Steve used to called his notebook of dog breeds a “PUG LIST” even though it had no pug dogs in it.

A: What dogs did he have in it?

Q: Boxers of course!

A: Oh dear…

Q: Anything else to add?

A: Well, just the fact that idioms like “happy as Larry” tend to thrive on their murky origins – as most idioms don’t make sense anyway.

Q: I’m as happy as a dog with two tails about our chat today.

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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