Rantings of a sub-editor

October 18, 2010

A lairy question

Filed under: lairy,word choice — substuff @ 11:54 am
Tags: , , ,

“He gets so lairy when he’s drunk”, “God, you’re in such a lair today”, “Stop lairing at me”. You all talk like this, right? Apparently not.

This is the language of my West Sussex youth, and I’d assumed that it was common everywhere. But an email from my mum last week made me stop and think – and y’know what, I don’t think I’ve heard anyone say “lairy” in years. Is that because it’s gone out of fashion, or because I now mostly hang around in London, or because these days I’m a bit so-middle-class-it-hurts?

Mum writes: “Laura and I were trying to explain to our Bangladeshi/Huddersfield pupil the meaning of ‘larey’ – he just kept asking why – what is the origin???  Can’t get much from the internet – is it in OE or is it just a fabricated word?” 

A quick Google shows that the spellings lairy and larey are both common, but the definitions vary wildly depending on location. In Australia, for example, it means tastelessly dressed. In Scotland, drunk. And in England, aggressive.

I can’t work out whether it comes from lair or leery – both are cited in various places. Both seem plausible, too. From the OED:

a wild animal’s resting place

knowing, sly

Alternatively, of course, it could be a twist on blairy, as in “like Tony Blair”.

Here are some of the regional variations. I don’t think I’ve ever found a word that varied so wildly.

From the excellent Australian National Dictionary Centre:

Lairy is widely used in Australia to mean either `flashily dressed, showy’ or `socially unacceptable’. Lairy is thought to have come into Australian English around the end of the nineteenth century from the British slang term leery, meaning `wide awake, knowing, sharp, streetwise’.

The verb lair is most frequently used as a verb phrase in combination with up to mean `behave in the manner of a lair,’ and has produced another adjectival use as in G. Savage, The House Tibet (1989): At Legal Aid I got landed with this callous bitch all laired up with these big shoulder pads and earrings like baby crocodiles.

By the 1950s the verb had produced a new extended form, lairise, with an identical meaning. In 1960 for example the Northern Territory News commented: All they seem to think of these days is lairizing around in ten-gallon hats, flash, colored shirts, gabardine riding breeches and polished riding boots chasing a bit of fluff. And in 1987 The Australian, in its description of a football match, said: Certain players… instead of doing the percentage things… turned it into a bit of show-off time and started lairising.

The Urban Dictionary, with perhaps slightly less authority, lists nine meanings (some of which are so similar as to be effectively the same). Here are a few:

England, esp South Coast. Pushy, angry. “Don’t get lairy with me!” “He gets so lairy when he’s had too much”.

Brighton slang for cheeky, particularily in the case of younger people ‘giving lair’ to older people. Lairing someone up is like winding them up, maliciously.

Getting inebriated and behaving obnoxiously for the amusement of all.

Something that misbehaves and is prone to deceit. It can also have vicious tendencies. “My bunny is a bad lairy-sauce.” (Okay… that’s just weird.)

Wictionary seems to sum it all up quite nicely:


  1. (Australian) vulgar and flashy
  2. (UK) touchy, aggressive or confrontational Don’t get lairy with me!
  3. (Northern England) drunk, intoxicated

So, three questions for you, fellow word nerds.

1. Have you heard this word?
2. What does it mean in your neck of the woods?
3. Anyone know how we got from lair and leery to lairy?



  1. Hi,

    Now that’s a new word. Will have to add it to my british words list. 🙂 I’ve not heard it before. Perhaps it had some sort of meaning at one point in cockney slang and eventually got shorted into what it is today.

    Comment by Krissie — October 18, 2010 @ 12:07 pm | Reply

  2. I’ve heard most variations that you cite. The two that I hadn’t come across were –

    Brighton slang for cheeky
    Something that misbehaves and is prone to deceit

    But for me lairy means aggressive and loud, usually from drink. Though I have heard it to describe someone’s clothes which I take to mean loud. Though I probably picked that up from watching too many Australian soaps as a student at Uni.

    Comment by Andy — October 18, 2010 @ 12:47 pm | Reply

  3. I’m Australian; I live in Melbourne. Perhaps I don’t get out enough, but I’ve never come across the word “lairy”! I wonder if it is used more in other parts of Australia or if it is … outdated.

    Comment by andrea — October 19, 2010 @ 10:48 am | Reply

  4. Wow, this really is web 2 intelligence gathering. I am now wondering where the term “dinlow” or “din-lo” means. Just another term I’ve only heard in the confines of Portsmouth to date. It must be admitted, there are only a limited ways in and out of this island.

    Comment by The pupil mentioned in the post above — October 28, 2010 @ 11:24 am | Reply

    • Hurrah, the famous one! 🙂 I haven’t heard of dinlow – what does it mean, or what context is it used in?

      Comment by substuff — October 28, 2010 @ 11:47 am | Reply

      • My understanding of dinlo is that it is a slang term similar to doughnut and means someone who is being thick or doing something stupid. I sure it is a term of pikey origin and that dinlow is an alternative spelling of the same word. I think it is best summed up on Urban Dictionary. Hope it helped ;-).

        Comment by Ray — November 2, 2010 @ 8:46 pm | Reply

  5. How come so many people say they’ve never heard the word ‘lairy?’ The Kaiser Chiefs used it prominently in the lyrics to ‘I Predict A Riot’, a single that enjoyed some considerable airplay a few years ago. It’s even in the first line of the song.

    Comment by Alistair Dabbs — November 3, 2010 @ 1:29 am | Reply

  6. Lairy is possibly Scottish in origin, and surprisingly recent. My trawling of Google News came up with two stories in the Glasgow Herald in 2001 and 2002 as the earliest uses, following by a use in The Guardian by a Scottish journalist in 2002.

    I’ve added sources and quotes to http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/lairy.

    Dinlo is a Romany word, it means “fool”.

    Comment by Fences&Windows — November 22, 2010 @ 12:46 am | Reply

  7. Aha! Here’s the origins in detail: http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=HXYU4MrEe9EC&pg=PA90

    Comment by Fences&Windows — November 22, 2010 @ 12:59 am | Reply

  8. I’m from the West Country and now live in London. I’d use this, and understand it to mean ‘drunk and boisterous’- but would only use ‘lairy’, not ‘in a lair’ or any of the others.

    Comment by Mel — December 7, 2010 @ 10:48 am | Reply

  9. I’m from London and have always used lairy in a being drunk and obnoxious and louder and braver than you would be without the drink way. It has also moved over in my usage and others I know, to mean loud in the way you dress. You need a bit of a swagger to be lairy whether it’s through drink or what you’re wearing.

    Comment by Liz Bet — December 28, 2010 @ 5:05 pm | Reply

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