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I heard the saying, "life of Riley" when someone was talking about my cat, and I wondered what the origin of the expression is. The only thing I can think of is that it comes from the name of someone who was pampered and lazy, a king for example.

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closed as general reference by Kris, kiamlaluno, Robusto, Daniel, Matt E. Эллен Apr 28 '12 at 17:09

This question is too basic; it can be definitively and permanently answered by a single link to a standard internet reference source designed specifically to find that type of information.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

    
see phrases.org.uk/meanings/the-life-of-riley.html Voting to close. – Kris Apr 28 '12 at 13:07
    
@kris. In my view, the site you link to gives very implausible explanations, and does not mention the possibility that the phrase derives from the 'life of royalty' at all (see below). – TomD Apr 17 at 20:02
up vote 2 down vote accepted

The phrase is frequently said to have originated in the words of a song, but although many songs of the late 19th and early 20th centuries feature a person called Riley or Reilly, none has been identified as furnishing a clear source for the exact phrase. However, the supposedly historical figure of William Reilly (or Riley), an Irishman who eloped with his sweetheart and was saved from execution by her declaration that she had gone with him voluntarily, featured in several popular 18th- and 19th-century ballads (of which Riley and Colinband, ?1795 , may be the earliest to be published), and even a novel by William Carleton ( Willy Reilly, and his dear Coleen Bawn, 1855 ), and the following quotation suggests that the phrase may perhaps originally have alluded to him: 1909 Bridgemen's Mag. Aug. 486/1 Paddy O'Malley is living the life of Willie Reilly. He has his Colleen Bawn out on a farm [etc.].

Etymological note from the entry on Riley in the online Oxford English Dictionary

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To my way of thinking, this explanation does not make sense. In Ireland, to say someone is 'living the live of Reilly' means that he or she is having a great life. My understanding is that the expression comes from 'living the life of royalty, meaning that you are living like a royal, and that the expression has change through usage to something that does not quite make sense, in the same way that the (Dublin) expression 'have a canary' (as in my mother will have a canary if she catches us) is derived from 'have a coronary'. – TomD Apr 17 at 19:46

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