I was feeling in a good mood the other day, and the expression happy as Larry sprang to mind (the alternative, like a pig in shit, being perhaps a little coarse). I was wondering about the origin of the phrase. Phrases.org here has two suggestions, about a Australian boxer Larry Foley, and it being derived from larrikins (hooliganism), which is presumably amusing to the perpetrator.

Are either of these correct? Does anyone have any other suggestions?

  • I've checked 3 dictionaries and the only one that has something about it is the OED which says "Etymology uncertain"... I guess it's not going to be easy :D – Alenanno Jul 8 '11 at 11:48
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    Be thankful you're not an Aussie, you might have BUCKLEY'S. – Fattie Jul 8 '11 at 13:55
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    Never heard it in the US. – David M Feb 17 '14 at 17:34

According to The Phrase Finder ( http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/as-happy-as-larry.html), this either refers to a boxer or a type of hooligan.

There are two commonly espoused contenders. One is the Australian boxer Larry Foley (1847 - 1917). Foley was a successful pugilist who never lost a fight. He retired at 32 and collected a purse of £1,000 for his final fight. So, we can expect that he was known to be happy with his lot in the 1870s - just when the phrase is first cited.

The alternative explanation is that it relates to the Cornish and later Australian/New Zealand slang term 'larrikin', meaning a rough type or hooligan, i.e. one predisposed to larking about. 'Larrikin' would have been a term that Meredith would have known. The earliest citation of that is also from New Zealand and also around the time of the first citation, in H. W. Harper's Letters from New Zealand, 1868:

"We are beset with larrikins, who lurk about in the darkness and deliver every sort of attack on the walls and roof with stones and sticks."

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    Does this answer add anything beyond what the OP asked? – Colin Fine Jul 8 '11 at 14:37

John Ayto, Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms, third edition (2009) includes a brief discussion of "happy as Larry" under a primary entry for "happy as a sandboy":

happy as a sandboy extremely happy ; perfectly contented with your situation.

An 1823 dictionary describes a sandboy as an urchin who sold sand in the streets, and according to the same source the expression jolly as a sandboy was already proverbial by that date for 'a merry fellow who has tasted a drop'. A common British version of the phrase is happy as Larry, Larry being a pet name for Lawrence. This saying is sometimes connected with the renowned boxer Larry Foley (1847–1917); on the other hand, it may owe something to larry, a dialect word used by Thomas Hardy, meaning 'a state of excitement'. The North American version is happy as a clam, which apparently originated in the early 19th century on the east coast, where clams are plentiful: the full version happy as a clam at high water explains the source of the clam's satisfaction.

The only instance of larry that I've been able to find in British regional glossaries of the nineteenth century is from Georgina Jackson, Shropshire Word-Book (1879):

LARRY [laar'-i'], sb. a confused noise, as of a number of people all talking talking together.—Pulverbatch. 'I 'eärd a fine larry las' night—folks gweïn down the Moat lane.

But that same word-book has an interesting definition for Larrance as well:

LARRANCE [laar'-uns], sb., var., pr. the genius of idle people. They are said to have Larrance on their back. Com. 'That chap's got Larrance on 'is back, 'e dunna do 'afe a nour's work in a day.'

So might "happy as Larry" mean "happy as the genius of idle people [that is, 'happy as Larrance']"? I don't know, but it sounds pretty happy.

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First printed reference that I can find to the phrase in the National Library of Australia TROVE database is a letter to the editor of the Illawarra Mercury in 1857.

The phrase is obviously already a cliche when used by the letter-writer.

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Another reference to Larry Foley claims that he won about $150,000 and got an article in a New Zealand newspaper titled "Happy as Larry" and that stayed.

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Larry Fine, one of the three Stooges. Fine is being happy therefore, happy to be fine

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