Happy as Larry

I normally don’t like to discuss personal topics on Word Stories, except of course when it’s a source of something linguistically interesting, but this news is momentous enough to warrant tweaking the rules just a bit: I’ve been invited to interview for the role of assistant editor with our fave dictionary.

Not that I’m counting chickens just yet – there’s every chance I won’t get the job – but it’s an honour to be offered an interview and I’m very excited to see the inner workings of the dictionary. (I hope it smells like old books and secrets.)

So onto the Word Stories. Given my excitement over receiving such good news, you could say I’m as happy as Larry. But who is this Larry bloke? And why is he so happy anyway?

Even though it’s a common British English phrase, it seems to have originated in Australia or New Zealand since the first examples in the OED come from Australia in 1905.

One possible contender for the infamous Larry is Larry Foley (1847 – 1917), an Aussie boxer who supposedly never lost a fight, retired at 32 and earned a very large sum of money for his last match, making him undoubtedly a happy chap.

Another explanation is that it comes from the slang term larrikin, meaning ‘lout, hoodlum, mischievous young person’, that is, someone who probably had a great time causing lots of trouble.

Whoever Larry is, Americans don’t know him and instead use the phrase happy as a clam. But why, then, is a clam so happy?

The phrase we know now has been shortened from an earlier version: as happy as a clam in high water. Here the meaning is a lot clearer, because a clam in high water can’t be dug up, is safe from being eaten and is a very happy clam indeed.



Ampersand, meaning ‘and’, is a contraction of the hybrid Latin/English phrase ‘and per se and’, which was first recorded in the 1830s. ‘And per se and’ sounds like gibberish but, according to the OED, it means ‘the character & by itself is and’; it’s a way of highlighting that the symbol stands for the word.

Another slight variant of this origin is that in 19th century schools, & was added to the end of the alphabet. When schoolchildren recited the alphabet, they preceded characters that could stand alone as words (including I and a) with per se, meaning ‘by itself’. As & came at the end of the alphabet, the recitation would finish with ‘x, y, z and per se and’.

The origin of the symbol itself is in a Roman system of shorthand symbols, which can be seen in graffiti in Pompeii. The Latin word for and is et. Blend the two letters together and you get something that looks like &. It’s clearer in some fonts than others; try typing & in Trebuchet MS and see what it looks like.

Interestingly, there was another system of Roman shorthand called Tironian notes, said to have been invented by Cicero’s scribe, Marcus Tullius Tiro. The Tironian symbol for ‘and’ looked more like the number 7 and it was maintained by some medieval scribes. One theory has it that when the first keyboards were laid out, it was decided that & should be the capital version of 7 so that if the typist failed to hit shift and type the &, at least he would get the closest match to the Tironian ‘and’.