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 jiu bu jian'." 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 (December 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 "News Around the Loop," in San Joaquin Light and Power Magazine (September 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," in Good Housekeeping (October 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 "Club News: Schenectady", in The Chinese Students' Monthly (May 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 Leland, Peck, "Secret Valley," in Sunset Magazine (April 1922):

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

The Chinaman rolled his puckered eyes...

... [several paragraphs later] ...

"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 (December 7, 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
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    @Mitch That’s not even really a literal translation. 不见 to ‘no see’ is indeed very literal, to the point of being ungrammatical (‘do(es)n’t see’ or ‘won’t see’ would be better translations in most cases); but an equally literal translation of 好久 would be ‘good long’ or ‘well long’. ‘Long time’ is relatively non-literal. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 20 '15 at 20:42

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.

  • 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

It's interesting to note that by 1880, 10% of California's inhabitants were Chinese ("Made in America" by Bill Bryson, p. 143.) Such a high influx of Chinese were flooding in that America passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to specifically prohibit more Chinese from immigrating.

In light of that, and Sven Yargs quote above from the article "Lee Hing's Girl," in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (February 14, 1892, predating the OED quotation), it seems that a strong case can be made for attributing the popularity of "Long Time No See" in the American West to a Chinese origin rather than a Native American. It is, after all, a very popular greeting in Chinese (I lived in China from 2003-2011), and apparently was in use in Chinese at that time (according to D. Robb's comment above). It is also a greeting that uses those four words exactly.

This might be a rare OED mistake.

I found one somewhat earlier instance—from early 1892—in a newspaper archived in the Library of Congress's Chronicling America database of old newspapers. From "Lee Hing's Girl," in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (February 14, 1892), attributed to the New York Sun but with no date for the occurrence in that newspaper (which further searches in the database did not disclose):

"Good by, Mamie," said Sing, as he unbolted the door for the girl. "You come back tonight?"

"Maybe. I think I go see my mamma today. Long time no see," answered Mamie, who from constant association, had, like the other girls of the neighborhood, fallen into the habit of talking pigeon English to the Chinamen. "Good by."

The phrase is repeated multiple times a bit later in this surprisingly racy (and, not surprisingly, racist) story, always in the context of its being pidgin English spoken in a Chinese-American milieu.

There may well be other instances of the phrase in the Library of Congress database, but checking all of the supposed matches for "long time no see" is a daunting task: Even when you bundle the phrase in quotation marks, the search tool returns matches for all pages that include the four words long, time, no, and see, which translates into 2405 matches for the years 1836–1900, many of which actually contain phrases such as "long time to see" or "long time not seeing."

UPDATE (December 5, 2016):

An Elephind search yields three even earlier matches for "long time me no see"—two of which involve a Chinese speaker and the other a Native American speaker. First, from the Marysville [California] Daily Appeal (May 7, 1874):

HONORABLE CHINAMAN.—Tuck Wah, butcher on the corner of First street and Maiden Lane, appears to be a very honorable person for a "heathen Chinee." John [presumably, Tuck Wah] lost about thirty hogs some time ago, and concluded they had gone from his gaze forever. P. C. Slattery a week ago advertised a lot of swine as occupying his fields, and notified the owner to call, pay charges and take them away. The hogs proved to belong to Tuck Wah, and he called on Mr. Slattery for them, saying: "You good man; I good man; how muchee me, pay you keep hogge? Me tinkee durty dollar rightee." Mr. Slattery was a little surprised at the honorable offer of Tuck Wah, and told him that $10 would pay all the damages. The Chinaman felt that he had been outdone in magnanimity. They are so generally robbed when in the power of white men that no wonder he was surprised. He therefore broke out into another long lingo of laudation, in American-Chinese dialect, something like the following: "Me goode man; you goode man; me tinkee you belly good man; mo no sabe mucha man ebry day; long time me no see 'Melikan man no taka durty dollar for ten dollar."

Next from "A Jaunt Down the Colorado," in the [Yuma] Arizona Sentinel (February 20, 1886):

Homeward bound wood was taken on, and head Chief Hockorow, of the Cocopah Nation, his dark face beaming with pleasure, saluted our commander with "How! Polhamus, long time me no see, no catch 'um boat comida heap long," which statesmanlike and diplomatic salute was duly recognized with a bounteous repast at the galley mess, and the distended abdominal recess of the Chieftian gave ample evidence of his labor of love.

And finally from "Hop Sing Writes to the Champion," originally in the Downey [California] Champion, reprinted in the Los Angeles [California] Herald (July 17, 1890):

When he [a Chinese immigrant in the United States] go to get some papers so he be all same as Mellican man and heap vote you no let him have any. So what he do, he send him money home to China and bymeby he go to. Now Mellican man when he got to China he no work, he ketchum heap fine coat heap long hat and heap nice cane, and pleach, pleach all the time, he tell all Chlistians here good, Confucius no good. Now me live in China long time me no see heap dlunk Chinaman, me come to California me every day see heap dlunk Chlistains. Saloon man he gitum lots money.

The four earliest instances of the phrase that I'm aware of come from three far western states of the United States—California (two occurrences) Arizona, and Washington—and this fact raises the possibility that native English speakers there may have built their own notion of a kind of universal pidgin English to serve as a lingua franca and attributed it indiscriminately to both Native Americans and immigrant Chinese.

Clearly the American reporters see some special features of Chinese pidgin English (a tendency to to add -ee endings to simple English words and of course l-for-r confusion) from Native American pidgin English; but in other respects—including "long time me no see," use of heap as a generic intensifier, and use of "catch 'um"/"ketchum" for obtain—the attributed word choices are strikingly similar, especially as between the 1896 Yuma, Arizona, item involving a Native American speaker and the 1890 Downey, California, item involving an immigrant Chinese speaker.

In other words, the earliest uses of the phrase suggest three possible sources of "long time no see" as an idiomatic English phrase: Chinese speakers trying to communicate with native English speakers in English; Native American speakers trying to communicate with native English speakers in English; and native English speakers of the western United States trying to communicate with members of those two groups "in a language they can understand."

My grandfather spent from 1895 to 1922 in South China. He had several Pidgin English expressions that slipped into his conversation, one of which was "long time no see." Another was "What for no like?", the meaning obvious. Another rather common one was to hurry, "You go chop-chop."

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