skylark – photograph: Royal Society for the Protection of Birds
The phrasal verb lark about (or around) means to enjoy oneself by behaving in a playful and mischievous way.
The OED (Oxford English Dictionary – 1st edition, 1902) indicates the following about the verb lark:
The origin is somewhat uncertain. Possibly it may represent the northern verb lake, as heard by sporting men from Yorkshire jockeys or grooms; the sound (lēək, lǣək), which is written lairk in Robinson’s Whitby Glossary and in dialect books, would to a southern hearer more naturally suggest ‘lark’ than ‘lake’ as its equivalent in educated pronunciation.
Of Germanic origin, the verb lake, from Old English lácan, is cognate with Gothic laikan and Old Norse leika (hence Swedish leka and Danish lege, which are verbs primarily meaning to play).
Contrary to what the OED indicates, the spelling of the northern verb was not always lairk; for instance, A Glossary of words used in Holderness in the East-Riding of Yorkshire (1877), by Frederick Ross, Richard Stead and Thomas Holderness, contains the following:
Lake [lae·k], v. to play; to engage in a game. Also (N.), to trifle, or act with levity. [Icel. leika, to play, distinguished by the vowel from A.S. lácan, to play, which has produced the Mod. S. Eng. to lark.
The verb lark is first recorded in the diary of the army officer and writer Colonel Peter Hawker (1786-1853); he was also one of the first known users of lark as a noun meaning a frolicsome adventure:
22nd February 1813.—A match being made between Captain Coles (of the 12th) and Mr. Bacon (of the 16th), I hired a stage coach and horses, with way bill and everything complete, and covered the expenses by taking nearly all the officers of the depot. Much as larking was in force, there had been no spree to top this since the lads had been together. We (being taken for ‘the Union coach’) galloped past all the gatekeepers, had repeated applications for a cast, and stopped to malt it at all the hedge alehouses. We had some prime slang on the road, and, of course, blew up every spoony fellow we could meet. After seeing the race won easy by Captain Coles’s brown horse we repaired from Blandford race down to the ‘Crown,’ where dinner was ordered for thirty at 7s. a head, and we having nearly drunk the landlord out of both his English and French wine, a grand attack was made on the Johnny raws of Blandford, in which were said to be captured fifteen knockers, three signs, and a barber’s pole. The boys then returned to their broth, and finished the evening with some prime grub, swizzle, and singing.
On the morning of the 23rd, after my getting shaved by the barber and sounding him about his pole, and making the waiter fiddle country dances while we ate our breakfast, we returned in triumph, with Captain Coles, the winner, on the roof; and having larked all the way down the road, we took a turn up and down Weymouth, with the royal accession of two monkey-faced chimney sweepers that we had picked up on the road and made stand on the coach, the one tuning up with his brush and shovel, and the other bearing a huge Nelson handkerchief from a pole twenty feet long. Our whole crew then began cheering, screeching, and horn blowing, to the irresistible laughter of even the gravest codgers in Weymouth, and the delight of all the damsels, from those in the peerage down to beggar wenches. All the windows were full, the esplanade very gay, and what with bells ringing, children squalling, misses giggling, and dogs barking, the fun was not to be described.
Our career was finished by landing at the barracks, where we had no sooner left the coach than it was mobbed by tag rag, and bob-tail, and as quickly covered with children as a piece of meat is with crabs when thrown in the sea. No lark could possibly end with more good humour on all sides, or more liberality; as we even remunerated the fellows that we blackguarded with beer, and left every place with the name of ‘nice gentlemen.’
The OED adds that, on the other hand, it is quite as likely that the verb lark may have originated in some allusion to the substantive lark in the sense of songbird. In support of this origin, this dictionary points to the verb skylark, meaning to indulge in horseplay. This verb originated in nautical slang; it is first recorded in The Naval Chronicle, for 1809: containing a general and biographical history of the Royal Navy of the United Kingdom:
A court martial was also held on John Brown, a seaman of the Raven, Captain Grant, who was tried on a charge of murder, by kicking R. Nelson so violently in the belly, when “skylarking,” that he died in consequence of the blow. After hearing the evidence for the prosecution, and the prisoner in his defence, the court acquitted him of the murder, but sentenced him to 200 lashes round the fleet, as an admonition against “skylarking.”
This verb was defined in A New Universal Dictionary of the Marine (1815 edition), by William Falconer and William Burney:
Skylarking, a term used by seamen, to denote wanton play about the rigging, and tops, or in any part of the ship, particularly by the youngsters, and is frequently productive of mischief, and sometimes of very serious accidents.
According to the OED, this verb is from the noun skylark, denoting the common lark of farmland and open country, so called from its habit of soaring towards the sky while singing. This dictionary quotes the following passage from The Metropolis. A Novel (London – 1819):
I heard the Honorable Mr. A——y say to a friend, “I say Baronet, let us have a lark.” I asked our Scapegrace next day what this meant? He told me that it was a term in low life, for kicking up a row, as he called it, at break of day; it being the short term for sky-larking. The Honorable is a sailor, and this, I presume, is a gun-room joke.
However, although the verb skylark is attested a few years before the verb lark, the former may have been derived from the latter with a punning reference to the bird.