Some larrikin Australian soldiers in camp. A Cornish slang word,
Some larrikin Australian soldiers in camp. A Cornish slang word, "larrikin" is one possible origin of the expression "happy as Larry." (Photo: Flickr/Aussie~mobs)

Used to express extreme happiness, “happy as Larry” is one of the many English expressions that people use but are never quite sure why—and its origin is considerably more uncertain.

The first written record of the expression dates back to New Zealand writer George Llewellyn Meredith in 1875, who wrote: “We would be as happy as Larry if it were not for the rats.” Despite the expression being time- and location-specific, it continues to be widely used across the world.

Australian boxer Larry Foley was “happy as Larry”?

Some state that Laurence “Larry” Foley (1847–1917) is the reason behind “happy as Larry” existing as a popular expression in places like Australia, New Zealand, and the UK today.

Larry Foley, known as the “Father of Australian Boxing,” rose to fame for his boxing achievements during the late 19th century. (Photo: Wikimedia)
Larry Foley, known as the “Father of Australian Boxing,” rose to fame for his boxing achievements during the late 19th century. (Photo: Wikimedia)

Known as the “Father of Australian Boxing,” Foley rose to fame for his boxing achievements during the late 19th century (in fact, he actually developed this reputation before boxing was even made legal in Australia). Foley was originally a street fighter, having joined a gang in Sydney when he was younger and later becoming known as “Captain of the Push.” One of his fights was reported to have lasted for 71 rounds, and only ended when the police intercepted it.

After being recognized by George Hill, Foley turned his boxing abilities into a career characterized by winning or drawing all but one of a total 21 fights. One of these fights is supposedly where the expression originated, when a New Zealand newspaper reported a winning fight using the headline “Happy as Larry.” It comes as no surprise that Foley was an extremely happy person; after all, he did win a £1,000 ($1,262.25) prize after a victorious final fight.

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One of Foley’s most famous fights was that against Abe Hicken in 1879, which he won bare-knuckled. After this, Foley opened a boxing academy in Sydney and gained international fame for teaching some of the most iconic boxers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with Peter Jackson, Tommy Burns, and Bob Fitzsimmons being some of the academy’s notable students.

Larking…larrikin…Larry?

Others believe that Larry derives from the word “larrikin,” a Cornish slang word that was later adopted in Australia and New Zealand. It refers to someone who’s known for larking around and being a hooligan, with the first written reference dating back to 1868 in Henry William Harper’s Letters from New Zealand:

“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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However, as researcher Tiger Webb points out in an article on the same topic: “larrikins” would not in fact have been happy people during the 19th century, as the slang word was used in a derogatory manner.

Whereas the origin of “happy as Larry” remains disputed to this day, one thing everyone can agree on is that the English language wouldn’t be quite the same without its strange and nonsensical expressions and phrases!