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Happy as a sandboy

Q From Niki Wessels, South Africa; a related question came from Robert Metcalf in Singapore: Our family recently discussed the expression happy as a sandboy, and wondered where and how it originated. My dictionary informs me that a sandboy is a kind of flea — but why a boy, and why is it happy?

A Let me add an explanatory note to your question, as American readers have probably never heard this saying. It is mostly known in Britain and the Commonwealth, though it is not so common these days even in those countries. The first examples we know about are from London at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Another form current at the time was as jolly as a sandboy. Both are proverbial sayings that suggest a carefree and untroubled state of mind.

None of my reference works hint at a connection with fleas (sand fleas exist, of course, but they hardly seem relevant). However, a writer in Notes & Queries in 1866, answering much the same query as yours, comments that: “Sandboy is the vulgar name of a small insect which may be found in the loose sand so common on the seashore. This insect hops and leaps in a manner strongly suggestive of jollity, and hence I imagine the simile arises”. So your dictionary is part-right: it was once a colloquial or dialect word for a sand flea.

The usual explanation is mundane in the extreme: sandboys sold sand. The word boy here was a common term for a male worker of lower class (as in bellboy, cowboy, and stableboy), which comes from an old sense of a servant. It doesn’t imply the sellers were necessarily young, though one early description does mention urchins doing the selling. There’s no link, by the way, with the sandman, the personification of sleep, which came into English several decades later in translations of Hans Christian Andersen’s stories.

The selling of sand wasn’t such a peculiar occupation as you might think, as there was once quite a need for it. It was used to scour pans and tools and was sprinkled on floors. By the time that Henry Mayhew wrote about it in his London Labour and the London Poor in 1861 he had to say that “The trade is inconsiderable to what it was, saw-dust having greatly superseded it in the gin-palace, the tap-room, and the butcher’s shop”. The sand was dug out from pits on Hampstead Heath and taken down in horse-drawn carts to be hawked through the streets. Early records also supply an image of sandboys selling their wares from panniers carried on donkeys.

The job was hard work and badly paid. Mayhew records these comments from one of the excavators on Hampstead Heath: “My men work very hard for their money, sir; they are up at 3 o’clock of the morning, and are knocking about the streets, perhaps till 5 or 6 o’clock in the evening”.

Their prime characteristic, it seems, was an inexhaustible desire for beer. Charles Dickens referred to the saying, already by then proverbial, in The Old Curiosity Shop in 1841: “The Jolly Sandboys was a small road-side inn of pretty ancient date, with a sign, representing three Sandboys increasing their jollity with as many jugs of ale”. A writer in Appleton’s Journal in the USA in 1872 remarked that the saying presumably arose because “as sand-boys follow a very dry and dusty trade, they are traditionally believed to require a great deal of liquor to moisten their clay”.

Quite so. But I suspect that the long hours and hard work involved in carrying and shovelling sand, plus the poor returns, meant that sandboys didn’t have much cause to look happy in the normal run of things, improving only when they’d had a pint or two, when they became tipsily cheerful. My guess is that at first the saying was meant ironically. Only when the trade of sandboy had died out around the middle of the century could it be taken as a figurative reference to happiness. Certainly, to judge from the answers to the question in Notes & Queries in 1866, even by then its origin was obscure.

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Page created 31 Aug. 2002

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Last modified: 31 August 2002.