As Happy as Larry

Tiger Webb wrote for ABC Radio National about a mysterious Australian idiom:

Rank parochialism it may be, but I’ve always felt Australian idioms to be particularly inscrutable. Blessed with a father whose affinity for rhyming slang and ockerisms knows no mortal bounds, as a youth I was routinely confused by words that made no sense to me yet seemed widely understood by everyone else in this wide brown land.

As our family boiled in a beach car park waiting for a spot to be vacated, I was surprised to learn that the places was not full, but chockers. Dressing for my first day of school, my sisters kindly informed me that being as flash as a rat with a gold tooth did not, in fact, mean that I resembled a rodent.

My childhood was also haunted by an unusually well-meaning spectre: that of Larry, as in as happy as. Everyone in Australia seemed to have met this Larry character, and had all independently found him to be an extraordinarily upbeat fellow. As I met Lawrences and Laurents in primary school—all of whom seemed quite dour—I began to idly wonder whether I’d ever meet this ur-Larry, ever come to behold his beaming visage.

You can imagine my surprise when I learnt that there was no Larry. ‘Why on earth,’ I began, presumably petulantly, ‘do you all say it, then?’ […]

The phrase first pops up in New Zealand in 1875, where Harry Orsman, editor of the New Zealand Dictionary of English spotted it in the writings of one George Llewellyn Meredith. Meredith, a prominent Launcestonian who spent time in Auckland engaging principally in agricultural pursuits, is reported to have written the words ‘we would be as happy as Larry if it were not for the rats.’

Orsman, the dictionary editor, supposed that Larry was a stand-in for one of two other words: larrie, a word of Clydesdale origin meaning a joke, or larrikin, a well-known Australian term for a cad. We can probably safely rule out the latter: as Melissa Bellanta notes in her history of larrikinism, the term was pejorative through much of the 19th century. Larrikins, then, were not particularly happy—on account of being frequently incarcerated.

There are more theories at the link, including an eponymous source: “Larry Foley, a man described by the Australian Dictionary of Biography as a ‘pugilist and contractor’, and in one obituary as ‘a popular citizen and old-time champion boxer’.” I like this kind of well-researched dive into origins, even if there can be no definitive answer; thanks, Maidhc!


  1. If you’re happy as Larry, then Bob’s your uncle. But then, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

  2. Genial Irish radio DJ Larry Gogan’s “Just a Minute” quickfire quiz accrued the usual urban legendarium of hilarious wrong answers, the most famous being:-

    Larry Gogan: Complete the saying “As happy as… “

    Contestant: Emmm…

    Larry: Think of me…

    Contestant: A pig in shit.

  3. I solved this one almost 15 years ago.

  4. Conrad’s blog, like Hat’s, predates the modern advice never to read the comments.

  5. We use ‘happy as Larry’ a lot in the UK too, I didn’t realize it’s actually from Australia.

  6. Australia also has “Buckley’s hope”, meaning no hope whatsoever.

    “He’s got Buckley’s hope of buying a house” (unfortunately now becoming a reality for many young people in Australia).

    According to Wikipedia, it’s not clear who this Buckley chap was. (It’s always “Buckley’s hope” for me, never “Buckley’s chance”.)

  7. Happy as Larry pops up in Norstrilia too.

  8. Having read Conrad’s interpretation, I wonder if happy as a lark is a 17th century folk etymology of happy as Larry.

  9. As a speaker of German, I’d be as proud as Oskar if I could solve this Australien mystery.

  10. PlasticPaddy says

    In the BNA, earliest citations are in the 1890’s, with one putting the phrase in inverted commas. My search also pulled up a reference to a novel serialised in the 1880’s, “What Cannot Love Do”, by Prof. John A. Saunders, ending with “the happiness of Larry and Nora”.

  11. David Marjanović says

    Australia also has “Buckley’s hope”, meaning no hope whatsoever.

    Could that be a remarkably innocent misunderstanding of fuck-all?

  12. Does “fuck-all” go back that far?

  13. Does “fuck-all” go back that far?

    A third Australianism is “in like Flynn”, but I think that one is clearly traceable to Errol Flynn….

    Hmm. Maybe not an Australianism.

    But there is another one:

    “Even blind Freddy could see that”.

    Nobody knows who blind Freddy was.

  14. Australian Trove newspapers has it from Nov. 23, 1857, p.2/6:
    “….with the blessing of God, we’ll send for the auld father and mother,
    an we’ll all live together, like Brown’s cows, and be as happy as Larry.”

    St. Lawrence, martyr, patron of librarians (and comedians), happy?
    Buckley’s chance?

  15. Kate Bunting says

    Was Larry leading the life of Riley?

  16. Given the 1857 use, boxer L. Foley, born in 1849, was too young to qualify for this match.

    Two words, one letter difference–Hi-Larious.

  17. Norstrilia: yes, I think I first encountered it there and assumed Cordwainer Smith invented it!

    William MacArthur was a grandfather to the twenty-second in a matrilineal line to Rod McBan. He had been a man in his time, a real man. Happy as Larry, drunk with wit when dead sober, sober with charm when dead drunk. He could talk the legs off a sheep when he put his mind on it; he could talk the laws off the Commonwealth. He did. He had.

  18. I’m suddenly reminded of “as tight as Dick’s hatband” (which came up in this post: “I’m pretty sure it doesn’t have anything to do with Richard Cromwell”).

  19. Stephen Goranson: that link to the 1857 citation, and the conclusion that it “predate[s] the career of Larry Foley and would rule him out as any kind of etymology”, is already in the story from ABC Radio, after the part quoted in the post. The quoted part does say “The phrase first pops up in New Zealand in 1875”, but apparently that just means “the first source I checked had an earliest citation from 1875”. (The story links to Michael Quinion’s World Wide Words; languagehat didn’t copy the links.) When Tiger Webb found the earlier citations, he should have gone back and corrected the sentence to something like “Before the advent of digitized searchable archives, lexicographers could only trace the phrase as far back as 1875…”

  20. Australian Trove newspapers has it from Nov. 23, 1857, p.2/6:
    “….with the blessing of God, we’ll send for the auld father and mother,
    an we’ll all live together, like Brown’s cows, and be as happy as Larry.”

    “like Brown’s cows” reportedly means massed together or in a line;
    Larry may mean hubbub, excitement, or (Shropshire Word-book, 1879, p.246 GB:)
    “a confused noise, as of a number of people all talking together.”

  21. we’ll send for the auld father and mother,
    an we’ll all live together, like Brown’s cows, and be as happy as Larry

    The presence of auld in this quotation makes me wonder if happy as Larry had a prehistory in ireland and was carried to Australia in the Usual Way (if you know what I mean, Pooh). I have no evidence for this, but it’s a place for someone else to look.

    “Before the advent of digitized searchable archives, lexicographers could only trace the phrase as far back as 1875…”
    Good snark, but hardly on point, since it was in fact found in a digitized archive. Lexicographers are geographers, not explorers.

  22. To me, both “Buckley’s chance” and “Buckley’s hope” feel like too much… it’s just “Buckley’s”, as in “you’ve got Buckley’s.”

    Although there’s the “two chances: Buckley’s and none” version as well, which apparently is linked to a department store which was far away in Melbourne mostly before my time.

  23. Stu Clayton says

    Lexicographers are geographers, not explorers.

    House cats bring in dead rats, birds and so on that they have found or killed, and lay them at your feet for approval. It makes sense to regard the cats as explorers.

    Similarly, some of the most appreciated commenters here post about dead words and phonemes that they have found on their expeditions in the archives. They are explorers. It follows, by your claim, that they can’t be lexicographers.

  24. Steven Carnie says

    Buckleys and Nunn was a department store in the Melbourne CBD. Hence the saying: you’ve got two chances – Buckleys and none.

  25. David Marjanović says

    for approval

    No – to teach you to hunt. That’s why it’s not always dead ones; they start with dead ones…

  26. “One, two, three, alairy” (and many variants) in the ball bouncing game might bring happy memories.
    (Long shot admittedly.)

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