MetaFilter: the Life of Riley
December 18, 2010 5:00 PM   Subscribe

My brother often informs me that I live 'the life of Riley'. The other night while re-reading Bill Bryson's Made in America I noted he mentioned the origin of the phrase was a popular 1880s song (possibly 1883) Is That Mr. Reilly? by Pat Rooney, in which "the hero speculates on what he would do with a fortune", and revived for use during WWI. Curious, I found several possible origins, though the song remains the top contender. Dictionary.com defines life of Riley as "a carefree, comfortable, and thoroughly enjoyable way of living. The term became popular and eventually 'The Life of Riley' was used as the title of an American radio sitcom (Wiki), followed by a movie and television series. It was used again with the alternate spelling 'The Life of Reilly' in 1995 as the title of a short film from Ireland, and in a 2006 movie starring Charles Nelson Reilly. In 2009 'The Life of Riley' was the name of a British television comedy. Now that's a phrase with staying power. It's the name of an Irish band, an online store in the UK, it was used by a sign maker, and quite obviously, as the moniker of several drinking establishments, such as the Life of Riley Tavern in Portland, Oregon; The Life of Reilly - Irish Pub & Restaurant in Baltimore, in the United Kingdom as the 'Life Of Riley' in Glasgow, Lanarkshire; and 'Life of Reilly Pub' in Harrow, Middlesex; and with a strange possessive at the 'Life of Reilly's Pub and Grill' in Long Beach, New York. Let's also not forget the mysterious MeFite LifeofRiley, whose stats stand entirely at zero. My main reason for writing all this is to ask: how many Mefites use this term? I do, but unfortunately my brother is wrong: I don't live the life of Riley. I might one day, if I win the lottery . . .
posted by bwg (29 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
Don't forget The Life of Reilly, a 35-part column dissecting the notorious Clone Saga era of Spider-Man comics and its headline character, Ben Reilly (a clone of Peter Parker).
posted by bettafish at 5:06 PM on December 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


Bill O'Reilly just basically ruined that last name forever for me. But this is kinda neat. :)
posted by fantodstic at 5:07 PM on December 18, 2010


Nifty pop tune by Lightning Seeds?
posted by maxwelton at 5:09 PM on December 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


Heavens to Murgatroyd! That's quite a story.

I don't know if it was meant that way, but I always took "the life of Riley" as equivalent to "living off the fat of the land", which implies taking what's available without thinking about either the future or those less fortunate. But I'm a damn socialist anyway.

But then I got to thinking maybe it's about the life of R'yleh. You know, "Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn" and all that. If that's the case, all bets are off.
posted by sneebler at 5:11 PM on December 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


I always thought a life of Reilly would involve the supine composition of historical and philosophical treatises, while scarfing down vast quantities of hot dogs, provided one's valve can withstand the stress of living among such odious half-wits as one must deal with in this sad, benighted century.
posted by chaff at 5:29 PM on December 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


Don't forget Rick Reilly's Life of Reilly at Sports Illustrated.
posted by carsonb at 5:32 PM on December 18, 2010


I used this expression just the other day and wondered about its derivation.
posted by rikschell at 5:38 PM on December 18, 2010


Wow. All that, and you didn't turn up the old timey radio show called "Life of Riley" from the 40's, starring the great character actor, William Bendix?
posted by crunchland at 5:55 PM on December 18, 2010


er... no, no you did turn it up. I just got lost in all your links. Sorry about that.
posted by crunchland at 5:55 PM on December 18, 2010


Myself, I always say 'the life of bwg'...

jk, hope you win that lotto soon!
posted by dancestoblue at 6:13 PM on December 18, 2010


It's a racial slur against the "lazy", "irresponsible", "profligate" Irishman.
posted by orthogonality at 6:22 PM on December 18, 2010


My mom, of Irish heritage who grew up in the South Boston 'projects', used this term to describe me during my teenage and early adulthood years, whence I spent much time as a lay-a-bout.
posted by armoir from antproof case at 6:55 PM on December 18, 2010


LYF O RLY?
I'm shocked, SHOCKED nobody posted this before
posted by oneswellfoop at 7:07 PM on December 18, 2010


Living the life of Riley would mean being rich as Croesus and staying drunk as Cooter Brown, right?
posted by BitterOldPunk at 7:21 PM on December 18, 2010


Doesn't the phrase come up somewhere in T.S. Eliot's _The Cocktail Party_, with reference to Sir Henry Harcourt-Riley? Or am I just confabulating that?
posted by edheil at 7:39 PM on December 18, 2010


If my last name was O'Reilly, my memoirs would be called 'The Life O'Reilly'.
Unless you're a certain pundit, you can have that idea for free.
If you are... well, every man has his price.
posted by Muttoneer at 8:32 PM on December 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


edheil: Interesting. GBS shows The Cocktail Party incorporating a song fragment

As I was drinkin' gin and water
And me bein' the One-Eyed Riley
Who came in but the landlord's daughter
And took my heart entirely


...which then makes the singer's character get referred to as Riley in the context of the play.

The song is a folk standard common to various English-speaking locales from Appalachia to Australia, and usually refers -- obscenely -- to a rake getting his way with the daughter of one Riley or O'Reilly, who gets his comeuppance at the hand of the rake. It may all derive from the English play (which has no Rileys in it at all) The Wrecker's Daughter, as well as a 1790s song "The Rover".

I think it's interesting in terms of at least parallel development and converging meaning. It would be worthwhile to pin down when the name became associated with the song, if possible.
posted by dhartung at 8:51 PM on December 18, 2010


I could have SWORN that 16 out of the 17 comments would have been advocating the use of "More inside...".
posted by spock at 9:22 PM on December 18, 2010


According to Ngram Viewer, it first showed up in 1874, but the phrase became popular in a sustained year on year sense only after 1929 (ie. the depression) - it was a depression-era term of choice, peaking just at the start of WWII. It never really recovered after the war, but remained steadily in the background of culture, perhaps to rear its head with the next great depression (or recession). bwg, doing your part.
posted by stbalbach at 9:59 PM on December 18, 2010


"it was probably Howard Pease's popular song, My Name is Kelly, 1919, that brought it to the wider public."
1919 seems to correspond well with the first meaningful spike in Ngram. That was probably the crossover point, from marginal group to popular culture.
posted by stbalbach at 10:49 PM on December 18, 2010


Nifty pop tune by Lightning Seeds?

Ditto Pere Ubu. (no link found)
posted by anazgnos at 11:54 PM on December 18, 2010


My elementary school was called Riley. The building was falling apart, the food in the cafeteria tasted like poo and I was bullied and tortured in that place by other students and teachers alike. Our monthly newsletter was called, you guessed it, "The Life of Riley." Damn I hate that stupid phrase.
posted by hazyjane at 1:08 AM on December 19, 2010


NOFX: Life O' Riley
posted by L.P. Hatecraft at 2:59 AM on December 19, 2010


Yeah, I grew up hearing the term from my dad, who was Boston Irish.
posted by rmd1023 at 6:21 AM on December 19, 2010


Encountered this phrase for the first time reading this post. I now shall begin using it excessively, to make up for lost time.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 1:39 PM on December 19, 2010


The other night while re-reading Bill Bryson's Made in America I noted he mentioned the origin of the phrase was a popular 1880s song (possibly 1883) Is That Mr. Reilly?

Bryson's etymologies are frequently considered highly suspect.
posted by Chrysostom at 9:23 PM on December 19, 2010


Chrysostom: "The other night while re-reading Bill Bryson's Made in America I noted he mentioned the origin of the phrase was a popular 1880s song (possibly 1883) Is That Mr. Reilly?

Bryson's etymologies are frequently considered highly suspect
"

I don't know what you base that on, but the point of this post is that it was this assertion that got me thinking about the expression's origin, hence the links to other possible beginnings.

Maybe Bryson is wrong in this instance, but I don't really care because I don't read him for accuracy, I read him because he's highly entertaining.
posted by bwg at 9:58 PM on December 19, 2010


bwg: "I don't know what you base that on"

It's not really a secret-it's called out in Bryson's Wikipedia entry. A few examples:
"I will add that I think Bryson misunderstands the term (as he misunderstands so much about language)" says MeFi's own languagehat.

Bryson wrong on "sleep tight" etymology, we read here.

Language Log: "here's the passage on p. 214 of The Mother Tongue where Bill Bryson exhibits his gullibility and/or ignorance of Finnish"

A number of the Amazon reviews of The Mother Tongue detail problematic areas of that book. Sure, grain of salt and all, but some of the errors are quite blatant.
Now, Bryson is an amusing writer, generally-I liked Notes From A Small Island a good deal. But in The Mother Tongue and Made in America he's purporting to report facts about language. And he's quite simply mistaken, rather often.

I'm glad he got you thinking about language but, "I don't read him for accuracy, I read him because he's highly entertaining"? The section for entertaining nonsense is Fiction.
posted by Chrysostom at 10:49 PM on December 21, 2010


Chrysostom: "It's not really a secret-it's called out in Bryson's Wikipedia entry ..."

Because Wikipedia is known for its accuracy.

"Now, Bryson is an amusing writer, generally-I liked Notes From A Small Island a good deal. But in The Mother Tongue and Made in America he's purporting to report facts about language. And he's quite simply mistaken, rather often.

"I'm glad he got you thinking about language but, "I don't read him for accuracy, I read him because he's highly entertaining"? The section for entertaining nonsense is Fiction."


So he makes a few mistakes; most writers do, and a lot gets missed by the editor. But it's unfair to label it fiction as a result; the man can still be entertaining while dispensing facts. That he perhaps got this one wrong takes nothing away from the book as a whole, in fact the reference to 'life of Riley' was made only in passing.

Given that it made me delve deeper into a specific idea, I'd say the book is a success.
posted by bwg at 12:05 AM on December 22, 2010


« Older Fantastic weekly music news and interview program ...  |  The most detailed photo of the... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments