Oh, for the life of Rilely: origin of idioms

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I guess it’s no co-incidence that my blog today is about living the life of Riley. As I have been feeling restless and vigorously browsing travel sites (Coronavirus notwithstanding – SA has just confirmed its first case) it should come as no surprise as the universe has a way of putting universal synergy in your path.

Living the life of Riley means to live a luxurious and carefree life. The origins of this idiom are not decisive. While some claim it dates back to an Irishman by the name of William Reilly, it became popular after the First World War when soldiers used it a lot in letters they wrote home.

Song lyrics

The phrase, with its decidedly lyrical note was used in many songs of the 18th and 19th  centuries , often of American/Irish collaboration, and continued in popularity. However, it’s exact origins remain dubious. While attributed to be a description of the life of an actual Irishman, the Americans seem to claim it as their own.

Phrasefinder.org says “A scan of a copy of the newspaper the Dublin Weekly Nation, Saturday 14 October 1899 shows that Reiley (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.”

Don’t confuse Reilly with Riley

According to the Oxford dictionary Riley is now the only accepted spelling of the legendary character whose name lends itself to the idiomatic, ‘living the life or Riley’.

As a writer I should get paid a lot more and therefor be able to afford to jet set around the world – Riley-style – with only my laptop and my backpack simply recording my experiences, but for now it’s just a dream.

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