01 April, 2009

An Unbridled Tongue

The precise origin of the expression 'as happy as Larry', like those of almost all modern colloquialisms, not to say colloquialisms dead to the present, has been swallowed in the fogs of time. The OED, for one, cops out with 'Etym. uncertain', its earliest citation coming from the Australian writer Joseph Furphy, aka. Tom Collins, writing in the newspaper Barrier Truth, local to the marvelously-named Broken Hill, New South Wales, on the 29th of December, 1905. One website devoted to this variety of philological speculation manages to get it back further, remarking confidently:
Larry—certainly the best known character in the world of similes. The expression he instigated is most likely to be of Australian or New Zealand origin. The earliest printed reference currently known is from the New Zealand writer G. L. Meredith, dating from around 1875:

"We would be as happy as Larry if it were not for the rats".
The Antipodean origin looks clear, then, even if nobody is really sure who that Larry was. So imagine my surprise, when, perusing a little treatise entitled, The vain religion of the formal hypocrite, and the mischief of an unbridled tongue, penned by the Puritan theologian Richard Baxter in 1660, I came across this:

Immediately was paid put to the Antipodean theory; the expression must have been current already in seventeenth-century England, even if it reached print only seldom. My initial response to this discovery, naturally, was to enquire, with everybody else: Who was Larry? But the question seemed impossible to answer. Even if it was indeed Baxter who coined the happy Larry—obviously an unlikely scenario—we would have precious little way of knowing to which Larry or Lawrence, or even Laurens or Lorenzo, he was referring. But I was suspicious: the lone hit in Baxter was not enough to be sure, and would never lead to an answer. A cursory search of the printed text database on EEBO, indeed, turned up two or three more happie Larries; but it was a 'happy as Laurentius', in one of many anonymous broadsides of the 1640s, that got my nose twitching, for in the margin was the little note, Vid. Erigena his Division of Nature.

I turned, therefore, to the Periphyseon, also known as De divisione naturae, of the Irish philosopher Johannes Scotus Erigena—or Eriugena, as we now more correctly have him. Eriugena, pretty much the only serious philosophical mind between Augustine and Anselm, is best known for re-translating, for Charles the Bald, the mystical treatises ascribed to Dionysius the Areopagite into good Latin. He thus played the same sort of function for Charles that Marsilio Ficino would play for Lorenzo de' Medici six hundred years later, and was favoured accordingly. One story, so often repeated in books about mediaeval philosophy that it even turns up on the Wiki page, is that Charles, teasing Johannes across supper with the question, Quid distat inter sotum et Scotum?, that is, What is the difference between a drunk and an Irishman, was met with the Wildean reply, Mensa tantum: 'only a table'. Books about mediaeval philosophy, I trust you will take my word, need every amusing anecdote they can get.

Scotus's other work of note is the aforementioned Periphyseon, written in the 860s, and the first major introduction of Neoplatonism into Latin philosophy. It was condemned by the Church, like all good books, in 1210 and 1225, though it remained one of the most influential treatises in Western history: Henry Bett lists Hugh of St. Victor, Abelard, the Jewish Zohar, Meister Eckhart, Nicolas of Cusa, Giordano Bruno, Spinoza, and even Hegel as its intellectual debtors. And it is here, in Book Three, that we find our happy Laurentius:

To translate: 'Therefore, [if it hadn't been for that pesky Original Sin] all human society would have been as happy as Saints Lawrence and Stephen, who were troubled by no perturbations in their souls.' In the case of the martyr saints, their spiritual felicity or happiness was brought into greater relief by their physical torments. St Lawrence, you will recall, was that carefree fellow who, when he was griddled alive under Valerian in 258 AD, managed to mutter 'This side’s done, turn me over and have a bite,' thus displaying equanimity in the face of torture. Eriugena, it seems, took a popular attribution of felicity to Lawrence (and Stephen, the first martyr), and expressed it in such a way that later writers could make it proverbial. Here, undoubtedly, and ironically, was the Larry of 'happy as Larry' fame.