Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Wednesday's Random Slang-o-rama: Living the life of Riley


Okay, who is this Riley guy and why is he (and his life) so special?? And where did this phrase come from, anyway? I'm determined to find out.

>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>

>
>
>

According to The Phrase Finder, "the life of Riley" means:
an easy and pleasant life
Well, I want some of that! 

Luckily for me, The Phrase Finder has a long and fascinating article on this saying and its etymology. I'd love to simply repeat everything they say here, but that wouldn't be kosher. So, I will instead pull out some tidbits for your edification.

Here's the first interesting bit:
... The phrase came into common usage around the time of WWI. The first printed citation of 'the life of Riley' (with the easy/carefree meaning of the phrase) that I have found is from the Connecticut newspaper The Hartford Courant, December 1911 - in a piece headed 'Bullet Ends Life of Famous Wild Cow':
The famous wild cow of Cromwell is no more. After "living the life of Riley" for over a year, successfully evading the pitchforks and the bullets of the farmers, whose fields she ravaged in all four seasons.
The quotation marks that the writer added around the phrase are often an indication that the phrase in question isn't familiar to the readership, which is an indication of it being quite recently coined.
The phrase was much used in the military, especially in WWI. The first known citation in that context is in a letter from a Sergeant Leonard A. Monzert of the American Expeditionary Forces 'somewhere in France', an extract of which was published in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle on 26th May 1918. In the letter Monzert wrote that he and his pals were 'living the life of Reilly'.
Here's the second bit, which is of special interest to me, given that it references a song from 1883. (The historical mystery book I'm working on is set in 1882 San Francisco.)
... There had been various Victorian music hall songs that had referred to a Reilly who had a comfortable and prosperous life; for example, there's the 1883 song, popularised by the Irish/American singer Pat Rooney - Is That Mr. Reilly? It included in the chorus "Is that Mr. Reilly, of whom they speak so highly?"
And finally, an answer (sort of) to the question: Was Riley "a real person?"
... A scan of a copy of the newspaper the Dublin Weekly Nation, Saturday 14 October 1899 shows that the Riley (and as it turns out it is Reilly, not Riley) was the hero of a popular folk ballad, living exactly the life that would lead to the coining of the phrase we have been seeking.
It's a fascinating article, so I encourage you to check it out, if you are so inclined.

A strong cup of coffee would be a start....




4 comments:

Liz V. said...

Sign me up for that life, please!

Ann Parker said...

Me too, Liz! :-)

Colleen Casey said...

Very interesting... I had no idea of its Irish origins. LOVE that fact!

Ann Parker said...

Hi Colleen! It's fun to delve into the whys and wherefores of these little sayings/bits of slang... I don't think I'll ever run out of slang to explore... :-)