happy as a sandboy

Discuss word origins and meanings.

happy as a sandboy

Post by Archived Topic » Thu Dec 16, 2004 7:54 pm

What is or was a sandboy, and why should he (or it?) be particularly happy?
Submitted by Simon Beck (London - England)
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happy as a sandboy

Post by Archived Reply » Thu Dec 16, 2004 8:07 pm

Simon, I’ve never heard the expression, but the proverbial (so they say) phrase as happy (or jolly, etc.) as a sandboy, appears to be the British equivalent of the American expression happy as a clam, meaning extremely happy.
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Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable

AS HAPPY AS A SANDBOY: Very happy. An old-established expression from the days when sandboys (or men) drove their donkeys through the streets hawking bags of sand, usually obtained from beaches. The sand was used by people for their gardens, by builders and by publicans [tavern keepers] for sanding their floors. The happiness of sandboys was due to their habit of indulging in liquor with their takings.

[[I suspect that the sanding of tavern floors, and possibly some home floors as well, served a similar purpose as the use of sawdust, at least in the U.S. when I was a kid, especially on butcher shop floors. The sand/sawdust would absorb the drippings which would be swept up and disposed of at the end of the day, to be replaced by a fresh supply the following morning. An absorbent sand of some sort was and still is used on machine shop and garage floors to absorb oil.]]
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Michael Quinion’s World Wide Words

Let me add an explanatory note to your question, as American readers have probably never heard this saying. It is mostly known in Britain and the Commonwealth, though it is not so common these days even in those countries. The first examples we know about are from London at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Another form current at the time was as jolly as a sandboy. Both are proverbial sayings that suggest a carefree and untroubled state of mind.

None of my reference works hint at a connection with fleas (sand fleas exist, of course, but they hardly seem relevant). However, a writer in Notes & Queries in 1866, answering much the same query as yours, comments that: “Sandboy is the vulgar name of a small insect which may be found in the loose sand so common on the seashore. This insect hops and leaps in a manner strongly suggestive of jollity, and hence I imagine the simile arises”. So your dictionary is part-right: it was once a colloquial or dialect word for a sand flea.

The usual explanation is mundane in the extreme: sandboys sold sand. The word [/b]boy[/b] here was a common term for a male worker of lower class (as in bellboy, cowboy, and stableboy), which comes from an old sense of a servant. It doesn’t imply the sellers were necessarily young, though one early description does mention urchins doing the selling. There’s no link, by the way, with the sandman, the personification of sleep, which came into English several decades later in translations of Hans Christian Andersen’s stories.

The selling of sand wasn’t such a peculiar occupation as you might think, as there was once quite a need for it. It was used to scour pans and tools and was sprinkled on floors. By the time that Henry Mayhew wrote about it in his London Labour and the London Poor in 1861 he had to say that “The trade is inconsiderable to what it was, saw-dust having greatly superseded it in the gin-palace, the tap-room, and the butcher’s shop”. The sand was dug out from pits on Hampstead Heath and taken down in horse-drawn carts to be hawked through the streets. Early records also supply an image of sandboys selling their wares from panniers carried on donkeys.

The job was hard work and badly paid. Mayhew records these comments from one of the excavators on Hampstead Heath: “My men work very hard for their money, sir; they are up at 3 o’clock of the morning, and are knocking about the streets, perhaps till 5 or 6 o’clock in the evening”.

Their prime characteristic, it seems, was an inexhaustible desire for beer. Charles Dickens referred to the saying, already by then proverbial, in The Old Curiosity Shop in 1841: “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”. A writer in Appleton’s Journal in the USA in 1872 remarked that the saying presumably arose because “as sand-boys follow a very dry and dusty trade, they are traditionally believed to require a great deal of liquor to moisten their clay”.

Quite so. But I suspect that the long hours and hard work involved in carrying and shovelling sand, plus the poor returns, meant that sandboys didn’t have much cause to look happy in the normal run of things, improving only when they’d had a pint or two, when they became tipsily cheerful. My guess is that at first the saying was meant ironically. Only when the trade of sandboy had died out around the middle of the century could it be taken as a figurative reference to happiness. Certainly, to judge from the answers to the question in Notes & Queries in 1866, even by then its origin was obscure.[quote}<1821 “Logic . . . appeared to be AS HAPPY AS A SAND-BOY, who had unexpectedly met with good luck in disposing of his hampers full of the above-household commodity.”— Life in London by P. Egan, ii. v. page 289>
<1823 “SAND-BOY,’ all rags and all happiness; the urchins who drive the sand-laden neddies through our streets, are envied by the capon-eating turtle-loving epicures of these cities. ‘As jolly as a sand-boy’, designates a merry fellow who has tasted a drop.”—Dictionary of the Turf by ‘Jon Bee’>

<1840 “The JOLLY SANDBOYS was a small road-side inn . . . , with a sign, representing three SANDBOYS increasing their jollity.”—The Old Curiosity Shop by Dickens, xviii>

<1841 “We will smoke together and be AS MERRY AS SAND BOYS.”—Letters (1889) by E. Fitzgerald, I. page 70>

<1892 “Everything combined to make him AS JOLLY AS A SAND-BOY.”—Children of the Ghetto by Zangwill, I. xxiv>

<1928 “The King was in his element here . . . He was HAPPY AS A SANDBOY.”—Daily Express, 17 March, page 3/1>

<1958 “Brimming with health, polished like a Derby cup, HAPPY AS A SANDBOY.”—Daily Sketch, 2 June, page 11/3>

<1973 “It isn't hot, but they're AS HAPPY AS SANDBOYS.”—The Perthshire Advertiser, 17 February, page 18/3>
(Oxford English Dictionary)
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Ken G – December 27, 2004
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happy as a sandboy

Post by Archived Reply » Thu Dec 16, 2004 8:21 pm

Ken there is another meaning of sandboy prevalent in Aus .. incidently I am not suggesting that this has anything to do with the saying listed here .. but seeing sandboy made me look up dictionaries for the meaning I, and my peers, understand .. to our amazement we could not find any reference to it in any source we consulted .. in the sports of Rugby, Union and league, a team may elect to take a penalty kick at goal or after scoring a try they attempt a conversion .. this is a place kick, which our American fiends would be familar as a field goal or extra point in their modified form of Rugby (gridiron) .. *grin* .. for this kick the ball is placed on a small mound of sand in preparation to be kicked .. the young lad who brings out the bucket of sand to the kicker is called the "sandboy" .. this was a separate duty to the "ballboy" who was reponsible for retrieving the footballs that were kicked out over the sideline .. I am not sure what these boys were/are called in other Rugby playing nations, eg UK, NZ, SA .. the reason I move between were and are is that mounds of sand are no longer used for this purpose .. kicking tees are now the norm having been borrowed and modified from American football .. so Word Wizards are there any more observations on this "ballboy" ?? ..
WoZ of Aus 30/12/04
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happy as a sandboy

Post by Archived Reply » Thu Dec 16, 2004 8:34 pm

MR SANDMAN by the Chordettes

Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream (bung, bung, bung, bung)

Make him the cutest that I've ever seen (bung, bung, bung, bung)

Give him two lips like roses and clover (bung, bung, bung, bung)

Then tell him that his lonesome nights are over.

Sandman, I'm so alone

Don't have nobody to call my own

Please turn on your magic beam

Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream.
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Ever wonder what they called Mr. Sandman when he was a lad?
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Ken G – December 30, 2004

Reply from Ken Greenwald (Fort Collins, CO - U.S.A.)
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happy as a sandboy

Post by Archived Reply » Sat Dec 18, 2004 8:21 pm

I shall merely note that an earlier version of the Word spellchecker once suggested to me "Happy as a sandbag" as an appropriate correction. Cute, I thought.
Phil W. 31 December, 2004
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Re: happy as a sandboy

Post by John Barton » Fri Apr 01, 2011 9:14 am

I think 'The Sandman' is much older than the song, and not a nice guy.
Used to terrify children:
The Sandemanians or Glassites were a religious party expelled from the Church of Scotland for maintaining that national churches, being “kingdoms of this world,” are unlawful. The name 'Glassites' originates from John Glass, the founder (1728), and they were also called Sandemanians from Robert Sandeman, who published a series of letters on the subject in 1755. "Brewer, 'Dictionary of Fact and Fable'. I'm not sure whether this association has been suggested by anyone, but it seems obvious - parents warning children who remained awake after saying their prayers, of the 'Sandemanian heresy', in the form of its chief heretic blinding their eyes to the truth. It parallels the slightly later 'disobedient child scaring tactic' during the threatened Napoleonic invasion of England, "Old Boney [Bonaparte] will get you", which inspired a fear among children that malicious skeletons lurked in their bedrooms. With perhaps a link between 'dustman', 'sand', and '[powdered] glass'. E.T.A. Hoffmann's story 'Der Sandmann', 1816, would appear to have been inspired by English sources, since the German for 'dust' is 'staub'. And it is doubtful whether the 'Dustman' notion has an independent origin (children rubbing their eyes at bedtime, as if dust or sand was in them; parents observing this and saying either "the dustman has arrived" or "the sandman is about"
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Re: happy as a sandboy

Post by Edwin F Ashworth » Fri Apr 01, 2011 9:43 am

The Glassites obviously advocated transparency in Church - State dealings.
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Re: happy as a sandboy

Post by Erik_Kowal » Fri Apr 01, 2011 10:44 am

John Barton wrote:"I'm not sure whether this association has been suggested by anyone, but it seems obvious..."

"With perhaps a link between 'dustman', 'sand', and '[powdered] glass'..."

"...would appear to have been inspired by English sources...."

"...it is doubtful whether the 'Dustman' notion has an independent origin..."
John, I wonder if, when you see those quoted fragments from your posting, you are as struck as I am by the gross imbalance between the quantity of your speculations and the existence of any empirical evidence for those speculations? It takes more than a flight of whimsy and a bunch of unsupported inferences to advance a persuasive argument.

Let's see your factual evidence, and then we will have an actual basis for judging whether there's more to your hypothesis than your desire to will the truth of your assertions into being.
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Re: happy as a sandboy

Post by Edwin F Ashworth » Fri Apr 01, 2011 7:51 pm

Nice hypotheses, though.
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Re: happy as a sandboy

Post by Erik_Kowal » Fri Apr 01, 2011 9:07 pm

Or so you assert. ;-)
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Re: happy as a sandboy

Post by Edwin F Ashworth » Fri Apr 01, 2011 10:20 pm

It's on file - in the news-sheets published by the Sandemanians or Glassites ( the 'Sand-paper' and the 'Glass-paper').

"Non-conformists rub Established Church up the wrong way."

(This is an example of vitreous humour.)
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Re: happy as a sandboy

Post by Erik_Kowal » Fri Apr 01, 2011 10:28 pm

It's lucky I'm not in an abrasive mood, or that reply would really be grating on me.
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Re: happy as a sandboy

Post by John Barton » Sat Apr 02, 2011 4:18 am

Well, I began with "I think", and I really do. Sometimes. As Einstein said:
"If the theory doesn't fit the facts, then the facts must be wrong".
People even blame Newton for his false hypotheses, when in fact he never stated any.
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Re: happy as a sandboy

Post by Erik_Kowal » Sat Apr 02, 2011 4:56 am

Either Einstein was attempting to be humorous, or he never said that.

Of course, it is April 1...
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Re: happy as a sandboy

Post by Edwin F Ashworth » Sat Apr 02, 2011 5:39 pm

April 1st is observer-dependent.

(This is an example of light humour.)
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