As happy as a sandboy
This is another one of those phrases that takes the form of comparing one thing to another and is used to express a state of blissful contentment.
Until comparatively recently the majority of buildings in England had little in the way of floor covering. Sanitation and drainage was rudimentary at best and with lots of animals roaming around and horses being the principal form of transport, it was a constant battle to prevent the dirt from the streets being carried into the buildings. Sand was used as a rudimentary form of floor covering in the 18th and 19th centuries which could be swept away along with all the detritus that had been collected up, before being usurped by sawdust. The stuff was delivered to houses, pubs and theatres by men and children who were known as sand boys.
Today we might associate the use of the term boy to denote a young male child but in those days boy was used more generally and in particular it was associated with a menial or low status occupation. Hence its use in job titles such as barrow-boy, a house-boy or a tea-boy.
So now we know what a sand boy was, why were they so colloquially happy? Well, conveying, shovelling and spreading sand must have been hard and thirsty work. IT seems that the sand boys, after a hard day’s shifting of sand, were not averse to sampling the electric sauce with gusto. In Charles Dickens’ Old Curiosity Shop there is a description of a public house called the Jolly Sandboys and the sketch at the top of this post is a representation of the original etching showing from the book the sandboys in party mood. Dickens describes the place thus, “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”
Dickens’ uses a slightly different version of the phrase that we are accustomed to but we can trace the happy as a sandboy phrase to as early as 1821 in Pual Egan’s Real Life in London where he records, “appeared to be as happy as a sandboy who had unexpectedly met with good luck…”
The sand boys’ association with jollity through excessive alcohol consumption would seem to explain the origin of this phrase. However, whether sand boys were too British a phenomenon or were a particularly miserable lot when they left the shores of Blighty but other parts of the world developed variations on the theme. Si in Australia we have as happy as Larry. There are two possible answers to the question, who is Larry?
Some claim it is a reference to the famous antipodean boxer, Larry Foley (1847 – 1917), who was unbeaten throughout his career and claimed a prize of £1,000 in his final bout. His career ended around the time the phrase was first recorded in 1875. Alternatively, it could be a diminutive of the colloquial term, larrikin, meaning a ruffian or a hooligan. My money is on the latter.
And in the States you are as happy as a clam. This strange image is probably a result of observing the wide rictus-like expression of an open clam. Whether they feel emotion, let alone jollity, is somewhat doubtful but the association with the mollusc with the height of happiness can be traced back to as early as 1833 in The Harpe’s Head, “it never occurred to him to be discontented… He was as happy as a clam”.
So now we know.