Thursday 22 July 2010

On long time no see

A correspondent, having encountered the idiom long time no see, writes to ask what its origin is and if there are any more like it in English.

Nobody knows exactly where it comes from. Earliest reference in the OED is 1900, the context indicating a simplified English being used in conversation with American Indians. It probably caught on through cowboy movies. Certainly it was in US usage long before it arrived in British English. But the same pidgin expression has been noted in several other contact situations, such as Chinese/English, so it may have multiple origins.

Any more like it? Well it's rare to find pidginized expressions becoming part of standard English idiom, but it's not alone. For a start, there's the analogous long time no hear. Then there's the fictitious me Tarzan, you Jane - 'fictitious' as it doesn't actually turn up in the Tarzan books. And this one has a clearly Eastern source: softly, softly, catchee monkey (also heard as slowly, slowly...). I can think of a few others:

monkey see, monkey do
dog eat dog
no can do

and maybe also no go, as in a no-go situation. Any more?

How unusual are these constructions? They're not so far away from the traditional two-part elliptical constructions often heard in proverbial utterances, and still being created today. Some examples:

the more, the merrier
once bitten, twice shy
out of sight, out of mind
penny wise, pound foolish
more haste, less speed
like father, like son
first come, first served
here today, gone tomorrow
waste not, want not
no pain, no gain
garbage in, garbage out

Nor are they far away from those colloquial expressions where the impact relies greatly on ellipsis, such as:

been there, done that
hail fellow well met
twenty-four seven
how come?
yah boo sucks

These can be the stuff of grammatical nightmares.


Anonymous said...

For what it's worth, the Chinese expression:
hao3 jiu3 bu2 jian4
character-by-character definition: "good long-time no see"

好 in this phrase, and in many others, is really a superlative or a way to emphasize what follows; using it before "many" means "a very large number of". So in this phrase it means "a very very long time".

Robert Morris said...

My Chinese textbook in college reported like fact that "long time no see" came from a too-direct translation of Chinese "好久不见," as the anonymous commenter before me mentioned.

I never doubted them, but perhaps I should have (given the outrageous claims some people make about language). Still, it seems like a good guess to me. :)

TM said...

Anonymous is possibly over-analysing 好 here.

In this context it simply means 'very', in which sense it is most common in Cantonese, but is also present in Mandarin, e.g. 这里有好多人.

Except, of course, that 久不见 would sound weird. One nearly always prefixes single-syllable stative verbs with a 很 or 挺 (in Mandarin - Cantonese uses 好 almost exclusively).
The 好 doesn't particularly mean 'very' in this case. It's more there for rhythm than emphasis.

(As seen in English too. "How's the food?" "Very nice." The food isn't really out of the ordinary, we just don't want to be terse.)

So, simply, 好久不见 = 'long time no see'.

Patricia said...

Is it the same for the expression "so far, so good"?

DC said...

Yes. Another difficult one to analyse.

Richard Sabey said...

"Easy come easy go".

"The more, the merrier" is not as elliptical as it might appear. It certainly is elliptical (after all, it has no verb), but "the...the" here are not the definite article twice, but adverbs meaning roughly "by how that much".

DC said...

I don't think anyone has ever suggested that there is ellipsis in relation to the; but, in addition to the omitted verb, what are more and merrier modifying?

David Crosbie said...

A couple of Blues titles:

Bright Lights, Big City
Mama Whip, Mama Spank

I take it that the first, more modern, has a sort-of cinematic intent. And the latter pretends to be 'baby talk' — though the 'baby' is no infant.

Plus stereotypical Chinese in a blues floating verse

Let me tell you, woman, what the Chinaman told the Jew
You no likee me, I sure no likee you

Anonymous said...

I've used this expression so long in Singapore that I had no idea that it was slang of global English. Singapore English (SgE) is a mixture of English and various other languages, the dominant being Cantonese and Min (Hokkien), and I grew up with the assumption that it was direct translation (as stated by the people at the top). As such, I don't think that this should be grouped as the header for this set of grammatical "fallacies", but a result of direct translations. Such stuff is encountered everywhere in Asian countries in "translations" to English, which hardly make grammatical sense.

R A Harless said...

In reference to the direct translation topic, there is a quote from an old video game that became popular among gamers as typifying bad translations (and old school gamers). It is "All your bases are belong to us."

Richard Sabey said...

@R A Harless It's a little worse than that:

James Dowden said...

Less said the better, really...

(Groan! Off with his head!)

But seriously, there is a phenomenon far from unique to English of obviously grammatical sentences without a finite verb (e.g. Welsh has demonstrative adverbs, which could be scanned as defective future subjunctive/imperative verbs, but are clearly adverbial in form). Although there is a tendency in this class toward the clichéed, I feel it would be a mistake to rule out productivity on little more basis than that generations of grammarians have fulminated against such usages, presumably because they make a language harder to describe. Authors use such sentences all the time, often as a stylistic device to avoid excessive semi-colons (although if you look at a Virginia Woolf novel, you will find both short verbless sentences and excessive semi-colons).

Even the clichéed end gives some room for riffing. We will all have seen humorous versions of "To be or not to be?"

And so we must appreciate that the non-finite-verb sentence is a normal mode of expression in English (and in other languages): pidgins are not responsible for the phenomenon, however productive they may have been in certain cases. This doesn't mean there's a free-for-all: there are rules, and it is for descriptive linguists to record them.

DC said...

There is no suggestion in my original post that these are merely constructions that lack a finite verb. That doesn't explain them at all. You can't explain long time no see so simplistically. This wasn't a post about verbless sentences, and examples such as 'off with his head' are very different in character.

Titania yng Nghymru said...

and how about "been there, done that"?

DC said...

See my original post for this one.