Saturday, March 23

Long time no see

Lars asked on the Linguistics list:
'Just curious, does anybody know where this phrase comes from? "Long time no see." Is it an imitation of substandard English (by foreigners, perhaps), or what? How did it come to be widely used?'

Eric Partridge has this on p. 1386 in his monumental life work, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (1937-84, my Desert Island Book Choice par excellence):

'In British usage, it derives ex Far East pidgin; in American, either from the British phrase or from Amerindian pidgin. Perhaps the most widely used conventional phase in the world.

'Wilfred Granville thinks that it came to Britain via the Navy and says that it is a "Chinaside locution akin to such phrases as 'no can do', 'chop chop', 'no wanchee', etc. Naval Officers used to greet 'old ships' who'd been on China Station with 'Hullo, old boy, long time no see' " (letter of 5 Nov. 1967. Douglas Leechman, however, supports a US-Canadian origination, thus: "It is based on an anecdote concerning an eminent citizen of some Pacific Coast city, Vancouver, Seattle, or San Francisco, who was showing the sights of Chinatown to a visiting tycoon. They were stopped by a ravishing Chinese girl, obviously of the profession, who cried in delight, 'Why Hally. Wassa maller you? Long time no see!' I first heard it about 1910 and used it no later than last week. Very common out here." (Letter written from Victoria, British Columbia, on 18 Nov. 1967.) Professor F.E.L. Priestley likewise thinks it of American origin -- perhaps from the cinematic conception of Red Indian speech.

'As for the printed record, the earliest I have is Harry C. Witever, "Love and Learn", 1924, p. 73. (Moe).

'P.B.: The phrase is in fact a direct translation of the Chinese equivalent, 'hao jiu mei jian'. Among Servicemen in Hong Kong in the 1960s there was a conventional phrase attributed (?wishful-thinking) to the bar-girls or "hostesses": "Long time no see! Short time [q.v.] buckshee!" '