“Happy as Larry”: but who was Larry?

Larry Foley, image borrowed from the       National Library of Australia

While I promise not to go into a great long monologue on the emotional state of Larry, the phrase, which I use fairly regularly myself, did spark a train of thought during a discussion with  friends last week on the origins of phrases that now have become part of their’s and mine, and most of the English speaking world’s, everyday language.

Do we ever stop to think about where they came from, or who said it first, and why they stuck? Possibly not, and if we did we’d be pretty boring because there are a lot of them, as I found when I started to trawl through the internet looking for them. 

Well apparently Larry was, according to one source (The Phrase Finder), an Australian boxer called Larry Foley (1847 – 1917). Foley was so successful he never lost a fight. He retired at the age of 32 and collected a prize of £1,000 for his final fight. So, I guess he would have been pretty pleased with himself for having survived a brutal and, at the time, illegal sport long enough to spend his winnings.  Not long after that the phrase was first cited by the New Zealand writer G. L. Meredith, “We would be as happy as Larry if it were not for the rats”. 

Fear not I am not going to switch career and study ‘Etymology’ and bore you rigid with these every week, but I have realised that over the years my casual use of well known phrases has rendered me ignorant of the meaning or folklore behind them.  I say folklore because few have a cast iron points of reference that confirm the original source. Most just being jolly good guesses.  

“All is ready and we leave as soon as breakfast is over. Goodbye little Diary.    ‘Sleep tight and wake bright,’ for I will need you when I return.” 

For example ,”Night, night, sleep tight”, anyone know where that came from? No me neither, but I am reliably told that it was first cited in 1866 by the diarist Susan Bradford Eppes who was wishing a sound and safe sleep for her diary when she wrote: 

Well I can certainly identify with that one.  My diary, or  journal as I prefer to call it these days, was the last thing I put away at night when I was at school and I would generally end my input with, “Going to sleep now, night”, as if I was speaking to a real person.  More often than not it got taken away from me if I was caught writing after lights out. But in that last year when I was trying frantically to record the disconnect rants of a pubescent teenager, my page-a-day (often only quarter filled) did become my closest ally. 

But in all truth,  “Night, night, sleep tight”, which was regularly spoken over me as the light was being put out in the dormitory had, to my mind, a more sinister edge.  Perhaps it was because I was afraid of the dark back then and the second bit of the phrase, “Don’t let the bed bugs bite”, added about 100 years later, suddenly turned what was supposed to be a blessing, into a curse.