Q From Karl Haas; a similar question came from James Cartwright: Who is Larry and why is he happy?
A A neat question, but American readers in particular will need some background before I can address it. The phrase happy as Larry seems to have originated as either Australian or New Zealand slang sometime before 1875. This date is earlier than that given in most dictionaries, but H W Orsman, editor of the Oxford Dictionary of New Zealand English, has traced it to a New Zealand writer named G L Meredith, who wrote in about 1875: “We would be as happy as Larry if it were not for the rats”. Unlike other odd phrases — the Australian happy as a boxing kangaroo in fog time and the New Zealand happy as a sick eel on a sandspit come to mind — it was meant positively: extremely happy or content.
There’s a suggestion that it comes from the name of the nineteenth-century Australian boxer Larry Foley (1847-1917), though why he was especially happy nobody now seems able to say. Perhaps he won a lot of contests? (He was certainly one of those who originated gloved boxing rather than bare-knuckle fighting in Australia and his name is still remembered there.) But this origin is far from certain and the early New Zealand reference renders it less so, without ruling it out altogether.
Dr Orsman’s suggestion is that it is more likely to come from an English dialect source, larrie, joking, jesting, a practical joke. Another possible link is with the Australian and New Zealand term larrikin for a street rowdy or young urban hooligan, recorded from the late 1860s but known especially in both countries from the 1880s onwards in reference to a specific subculture. Like other groups before and since, the larrikins had their own dress style, in their case very neat and rather severe. The word may well have come from English dialect larrikin for a mischievous youth, once common in Warwickshire and Worcestershire, which itself is closely related to larrie. Either of these sources could afterwards have been reinforced through a supposed connection with Larry Foley.