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A question from almost two years ago asked "In which countries is that “long time no see” greeting common?" The question drew a number of answers that were squarely on point, but also a couple that hazarded explanations for how the phrase arose and caught on. One comment suggested that it was "a direct loan-translation of Mandarin 'hao liu bu jiam'." Another nominated Hollywood westerns as the phrase's probable source. I ran a search in the Ngram Viewer matches for "long time no see" and found a number of matches from 1922 and before:

1. William F. Drannan, Thirty-one Years on the Plains and in the Mountains (1900):

When we rode up to him [Captain Jack, the renowned Modoc Indian leader], he said: "Good morning. Long time no see you," and at the same time presented the gun with the beach foremost.

2. Jeff W. Hayes, Tales of the Sierras (1900):

Approaching the unsuspecting George, Mahala [a Paiute Indian servant] ejaculated in her guttural tones, distinguishable to all in the room: "Ugh, you squaw, she long time no see you; you go home mucha quick."

3. Chester B. Fernald, "John Kendry's Idea," in The Outing Magazine (1906):

"His manner, greeting the son of a friend by whose benefits Chan Kow had had enabled his extraordinary rise in America, was that of a prince, for its ease, its urbanity, its confidence in the entertainment his guest would receive.

"You boy—long time no see—what for?" he sang deeply, through his thick lips.

4. From Our Navy, the Standard Publication of the U.S. Navy, volume 5 (1911) [snippet]:

Yokohama at 1:15 p.m., 580 miles from Nagasaki. Sampans showing up from all directions, and before long our Oriental friends were greeting us with "Ohio's" and "Long time no see your handsome face," and the like.

5. From San Joaquin Light and Power Magazine (1915):

L. Meisel, chief clerk of the Merced office was a visitor in the Fresno office during the month. He happened in the same day as Berro was here, and the two renewed their acquaintance after a "long time no see."

6. Eugene M. Rhodes, West Is West (1917):

"Hello, you! Long time no see. Have a cigar," said Whitly.

7. Arthur Stringer, The Prairie Mother (1920):

And that started me maun enlarging on the names of Indians he'd known, the most elongated of which, he acknowledged, was probably "The-Man_Who-Gets-Up-In-The-Middle-Of-The-Night-To-Feed-Oats-To-His-Pony," while the most descriptive was probably "Slow-To-Come-Over-The-Hill," though "Shot-At-Many-Times" was not without value, and "Long-Time-No-See-Him," as the appellative for a disconsolate young squaw, carried a slight hint of the Indian's genius for nomenclature."

8. Fanny H. Lea, "An Old Flame," Good Housekeeping, volume 71 (1920):

Andy shook hands with her warmly.

"Long time no see!" he commented with his most likable smile.

"Please, Jimmy dear, tell Keno she may serve dinner in about ten minutes," Adrienne instructed.

9. From The Chinese Students' Monthly, volume 16, number 7 (1921):

Mr. Shen has accepted a position in the National Electric Lamp Association, Central Falls, R[hode] I[sland]. Mr. King left for China. As a compensation to the loss of two, we welcome back in our midst Mr. A. S. Liu, who recently returned from three months' engagement with the G. E. Co. in Pittsfield, Mass[achusetts]. With the presence of this jolly good fellow, "long time no see," we are certain of a jolly good time together.

10. Hal G. Evarts, The Settling of the Sage (1922):

Deane crossed over to Billie. The music started but she shook her head as he would have led her to the floor.

"Sit down. I want to talk with you. Long time no see 'um after to-night," she said. "It'll be daylight soon and I've a long tale to tell."

11. From Sunset, volume 48 (1922) [two snippets]:

"How Din Hock," said Ben Downs. "Long time no see."

The Chinaman rolled his puckered eyes...

...

"Hi, Din!" he called now as he caught sight of the Chinaman in the dust behind his mules. "Where the hell have you been?"

"Long time no see?" asked Din Hock, as if to supply the other with a forgotten phrase.

12. "South Sea Islanders," From The Friend: A Religious and Literary Journal (1837):

I was kept from reclining on my welcome mat, by the conversation of one of the most interesting and intelligent young chiefs with whom I had yet had intercourse. His name was Riromainva. He was nearly related to Malietoa, and esteemed by the old chieftain so highly that he consulted him upon every subject of importance. He had just then returned from a journey, and was impatiently waiting my arrival. On entering the house, to my surprise he saluted me in English, with "How do you do sir?" I instantly replied, "Very well, I thank you, sir; how do you do?" "O," he answered, "me very well; me very glad to see you; me no see you long time ago; me away in the bush making fight; oh! Plenty of the fight; too much of the fight."

To sum up these instances, three (#1, #2, and #7) are attributed to Native American speakers (and include "you" or "him" at the end of the phrase); two (#3 and #11) to Chinese immigrants in the United States; one (#4) to native Japanese speakers in Japan; five (#5, #6, #8, #9, and #10) to native (or at last English-fluent) English speakers in the United States; and one (#12, which isn't an instance of "long time no see" at all but a comparable formulation) to a native South Sea Islander.

Clearly, by 1915, some native English speakers (at least in the western United States) were using the phrase among themselves, and by 1920 it seems to have caught on as a casual greeting that wouldn't startle the readership of Good Housekeeping.

I have three questions: 1. Did "long time no see" arrive in U.S. English from forms of pidgin English spoken separately by both some Native Americans and some Chinese immigrants? 2. When did this turn of phrase first gain the recorded notice of an American English-speaking author? 3. When did the phrase cross over into use by native U.S. English speakers among themselves?

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With this excellent research, you have, mostly, answered your own question! –  nohat Feb 15 '13 at 6:39
    
Mandarin: 好久,不见 = hao jiu, bu jian = (literal transcription) long time, no see. –  Mitch Feb 15 '13 at 14:30

1 Answer 1

1. Did "long time no see" arrive in U.S. English from forms of pidgin English spoken separately by both some Native Americans and some Chinese immigrants?

The earliest recorded examples are from native Americans, but it's plausible it was used in other types of pidgin English at the same time.

2. When did this turn of phrase first gain the recorded notice of an American English-speaking author?

It has been recorded by American English-speaking writers in 1900. The author Raymond Chandler used it in a 1939 newspaper and 1940 book.

3. When did the phrase cross over into use by native U.S. English speakers among themselves?

Chandler presumably helped popularise it with detective stories and film noir of the early forties.


The OED says it's a "Colloq. phr. (orig. U.S.) long time no see, a joc. imitation of broken English, used as a greeting after prolonged separation."

Their earliest quotation is 1900 from a native American:

1900 W. F. Drannan Thirty-one Years on Plains (1901) xxxvii. 515 When we rode up to him [sc. an American Indian] he said: ‘Good mornin. Long time no see you.’

Their next quotation of 1939 shows it was fully naturalised:

1939 R. Chandler in Sat. Evening Post 14 Oct. 72/4 Hi, Tony. Long time no see.

Their next is also from Chandler, in 1940's Farewell, my Lovely.

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Thanks, Hugo. Both the Drannan quote (which I list is #1 in my series of quotes) and the Hayes quote that I list as #2 in my series are from books published in 1900. I suspect that earlier writings use the phrase, too. As I noted in my original post, one interesting feature of the 11 "long time no see" quotations I gathered is that all three that are attributed to Native American speakers conclude "long time no see" phrase with a pronoun, whereas those attributed to Chinese immigrants and European Americans do not. It's a tiny sample, but the difference might hint at independent origin. –  Sven Yargs Feb 15 '13 at 19:22
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At the risk of being absurdly obvious, I note, too, that—whatever the contribution of Native American pidgin English speakers may have been in this instance—it's not as though the Modocs and the Paiutes and the hundreds of other tribal groupings all spoke "Native American." Consequently, there is no reason to assume that all Native American pidgin English speakers would have found a particular formulation of English words to be a natural fit with their native tongues. –  Sven Yargs Feb 15 '13 at 19:29

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