First recorded in 1906, the colloquial American-English phrase as busy as a one-armed paperhanger, and variants, mean exceedingly busy.
An earlier British-English phrase, as busy as the devil in a high wind, was recorded by the English antiquary and lexicographer Francis Grose (1731-1791) in A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (London: Printed for S. Hooper, 1788).
There have been, since the early 20th century, particularly in Australian English, a number of colourful variants. For example:
1-: The phrase as busy as a one-armed man hiving a swarm of bees at the top of a tall tree, which occurs in the column Tout Le Monde, published in The Scottish Referee (Glasgow, Lanarkshire, Scotland) of Monday 3rd August 1914:
Vincent is young yet and isn’t probably half so busy as he thinks. He can’t be very busy unless he is in love. One girl that you are in love with can keep a fellow as busy as a one-armed man hiving a swarm of bees at the top of a tall tree.
2-: The phrase as busy as a one-armed bill-sticker in a gale, which occurs, for example:
2.1-: In Candid Communications, a space “devoted to Open Letters to Celebrities, Notorieties, and, occasionally, Nonentities”, published in John Bull (London, England) of Saturday 20th August 1921:
To Mr. Clifford Parker, Relieving Officer, Ware.
Dear Pooh Bah,—You must certainly be as busy as a one-armed bill-sticker in a gale of wind!
2.2-: In Down Under lingo, by Tony Henderson, published in The Journal (Newcastle upon Tyne, Northumberland, England) of Thursday 5th September 1991:
One of Australia’s more colourful exports has been its language. Young children, for example, are aptly called ankle-biters, as in “doing the Julie Andrews bit, skipping and trilling over the edelweiss with the Von Trapp ankle-biters.”
On the other hand, various circumstances could leave you in a state of confusion. As in “the water was so cold I didn’t know if I was Arthur or Martha when I got out.” Alternatively, you could be “as useful as an ashtray on a motorbike,” or “as busy as a one-armed billposter in a gale.”
3-: The phrase as busy as a bandman with a flea in his pants, which occurs in an article about the Battle of Britain (July-October 1940), by Bill Pattinson, published in The Journal (Newcastle upon Tyne, Northumberland, England) of Monday 13th August 1979—bandman may be a misprint for bandsman, denoting a member of a band of musicians:
[A] pilot officer […], hit by cannon fire, was trapped in his Hurricane, his parachute harness snarled in his seat-adjustment lever. Unable to bale out he was for the next minute “as busy as a bandman with a flea in his pants” trying to avoid the attentions of a persistent yellow-nosed Messerschmitt.
4-:The phrase as busy as, or busier than, a one-armed milker, which occurs, for example:
4.1-: In Setting up Team Canada, by Eddie MacCabe, published in the Ottawa Journal (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada) of Monday 6th December 1976—the following is about Derek Holmes (born 1939), who was then the technical director of Hockey Canada, the national governing body of ice hockey and ice sledge hockey in Canada:
A Canadian team going to Europe to play needs particularly mobile defencemen. With that in mind, our lad Derek is keeping a complete book on the NHL and the WHA this year, and he’s off this week to look in on a few more teams. After he gets home, he’ll take a minute to dubbin his boots and change his toque, and then he’ll be off to Moscow for the Izvestia Tournament. Winnipeg Jets will compete in that one against Russia, Czechoslovakia, Finland and Sweden.
So I mean, the lad’s going to be busier than a one-armed milker in fly-time, and no time for the chores either.
4.2-: In an advertisement for Winkel Motors, published in the Mason Valley News (Yerington, Nevada, USA) of Friday 25th March 2005:
We have been as busy as an one-armed milker with a hole in his pail this week. Our inventory has dropped significantly due to sales and we are restocking as you read this. Special thanks to all our friends who came out during this period, your patronage and your patience is appreciated greatly.
5-: With reference to two war-torn cities, the phrase as busy as, or busier than, a brickie in Beirut, or in Baghdad, which occurs, for example:
5.1-: In Greg Growden’s rugby column, about the forthcoming Hong Kong Invitation Tournament, published in The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, New South Wales, Australia) of Saturday 1st April 1989:
Brunei have virtually given up any hope of winning their first match against Australia, an encounter which will open the tournament.
Coach Alan Whitbread admits that Brunei, with only 100 players to choose from, have no chance of beating the defending champions.
He only hopes his men do not get injured.
“We’ll be as busy as a brickie in Beirut trying to stop the Aussies,” Whitbread said.
5.2-: In Hughesy burns the candle at both ends, published on the website RadioInfo (Sydney, New South Wales, Australia) on 15th April 2012:
It’s good to be in demand, but Nova 100’s Dave Hughes has been busier than a brickie in Baghdad over the last couple of days as he rushes from one job to the next.
5.3-: In Time to lose cliches: the western suburbs are serious business, by Ross Cameron, published in The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, New South Wales, Australia) of Friday 8th March 2013:
Inner-city Sydneysiders seldom ventured beyond Parramatta, except on their way to the ski fields. Now the region generates some $85 billion a year from more than 720,000 jobs. Whole streets of Oatlands and Strathfield start at $1 million a house and sometimes rise beyond $4 million; many built by Lebanese Maronite developers, who embody the saying “busy as a brickie in Beirut”.
6-: The phrase as busy as a one-armed taxi-driver with crabs, or with fleas, which occurs, for example:
6.1-: In Bazza versus Grazza, by Barry McKenzie as told to Barry Humphries, published in The Bulletin (Sydney, New South Wales, Australia) of Saturday 19th January 1974:
If Al Grassby 1 wants to convert me or any other clean-living Australians into dressing up like Lord Muck and getting around kitted up like a flamin’ pox doctor’s clerk, old Grazza’s going to have his time cut out. As a dress-reformer, he’ll be as busy as a one-armed taxi driver with crabs.
1 Al Grassby (1926-2005) was an Australian politician.
6.2-: In Quotes of the week, published in the Evening Herald (Dublin, County Dublin, Ireland) of Friday 9th September 1988:
“I’m as busy as a one-armed taxi-driver with fleas.”
Dame Edna Everage 2 who is due in Dublin soon for a series of shows.
2 Dame Edna Everage is a fictional character satirising the average Australian housewife, created and interpreted by the Australian comedian Barry Humphries (born 1934).
6.3-: In The pommie bastard’s guide to our convict cousins, by Terence Blacker, published in The Independent (London, England) of Tuesday 31st October 2006:
For those readers who are preparing to spend a few weeks in Australia watching our team lose the Ashes, here are just a few of the local phrases which might cause them problems.
As busy as a one-armed taxi-driver with crabs. The second most safety-conscious nation on earth after Sweden, Australia has made it an offence under federal law for drivers of public transport vehicles to have less than the full complement of arms and legs. No one knows where this highly inaccurate phrase originates.
In the following from Similes and other evaluative idioms in Australian English, published in Phraseology and Culture in English (Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 2007), edited by Paul Skandera, the Australian linguist Pam Peters placed this type of phrases into an Australian cultural perspective:
Unusual busyness and frenetic activity are expressed not only through ‘flat out like a lizard drinking’, but also in the jokey simile ‘busy as a one-armed bill-sticker in a gale’ (Dal Stivens, Jimmy Bockett [sic], 1951 3), and ‘busy as a bill-poster in a high wind’ (Frank Hardy, The Outcasts of Foolgarah, 1971 4). These seem to be variations of an earlier British simile (Grose 1811) ‘busy as the devil in a high wind’. Meanwhile ‘busy as a one-armed milker on a dairy farm’ is on record (Northern Territory News, January 1983) as a more recent invention based on the Australian variant of the underlying pattern. All are rather far-fetched ways of depicting busyness, and show the hyperbole that is typical of many extended similes […]. A down-to-earth addition to the set is ‘busy as a blowie (‘blowfly’) at a barbie (‘barbecue’)’, captured in a Google search of Australian internet documents, which casts a more negative judgement on frenetic energy, as characteristic of that despised insect. Being too busy at one’s work can put you out of step with your working mates, * in a country where solidarity is valued.
* The solidarity of Australian laborers against being worked too hard is amusingly satirized by O’Grady in They’re a Weird Mob (1966) 5, where the recently arrived Italian immigrant is advised against laying too many bricks in an hour.
3 This refers to Jimmy Brockett: Portrait of a Notable Australian (London: Britannicus Liber, 1951), by the Australian short-story writer and novelist Dal Stivens (1911-1997).
4 This refers to The Outcasts of Foolgarah (Melbourne: Allara Publishing, 1971), by the Australian novelist Frank Hardy (1917-1994).
5 This apparently refers to They’re a Weird Mob (1966), an Australian film based on They’re a Weird Mob (Sydney: Ure Smith, 1957), a novel by the Australian author John O’Grady (1907-1981), published under the pen name of Nino Culotta.