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Native speaker, but I got to wondering what the grammar and semantics of this old phrase are.

What would be a direct translation to modern English? I'm not looking for a loose translation; everyone knows what "once upon a time" means. I'm trying to understand the various semantic and grammatical components of the phrase the way they were originally used.

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    Think of it as one word, frozen in shape and sound, always pronounced together, like How do you do? or Thank you very much. They're grasped as units and no parsing is required in normal circumstances. Once upon a time is simply the canonical phrase to begin a fairy tale; it sets the stage, draws open the curtain, and disappears backstage. – John Lawler Sep 2 '14 at 19:09
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    @JohnLawler: I understand all this, but I'm asking how it used to make sense. Obviously, once upon a time, it did. – ThePopMachine Sep 2 '14 at 19:12
  • It's a temporal phrase - at one time, long ago, somewhere else. – John Lawler Sep 2 '14 at 19:26
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    @JohnLawler: You are again describe what it is and what it means, not how it ever meant that. Here's a guess: "Once upon a time" means something like "There was once a time (long ago), upon (i.e. during) which the following happened...." – ThePopMachine Sep 2 '14 at 19:30
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    Perhaps this is a case where there is some profit in dismantling an idiom. But I wouldn't recommend it as a general practice. – Edwin Ashworth Sep 2 '14 at 19:45
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This extract may help:

"Once upon a time":

  • is a stock phrase that has been used in some form since at least 1380 (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) in storytelling in the English language and has opened many oral narratives since 1600. These stories often then end with "and they all lived happily ever after," or, originally, "happily until their deaths." These are examples of the narrative form and occur most frequently in the narratives produced for children aged between 6 and 8.

    • It was commonly used in the original translations of the stories of Charles Perrault as a translation for the French "il était une fois", of Hans Christian Andersen as a translation for the Danish "der var engang", (literally "there was once"), the Brothers Grimm as a translation for the German "es war einmal" (literally "it was once") and Joseph Jacobs in English translations and fairy tales.

Upon:

  • What’s bothering is the word upon in the phrase. We still use it in connection with time, though it often sounds formal (“we plan to meet upon another occasion”). It was once the done thing to attach it to any time-related term where we would now use on or at. Lord Dunsany wrote in Time and the Gods in 1905, “Upon an evening of the forgotten years the gods were seated on the hills.”

    • Another phrase with similar meaning to once upon a time was upon a day, as in Westward Ho! by Charles Kingsley: “And it befell upon a day, that we came into a great wood of ferns.” Another was upon a time — an example is in Miles Coverdale’s translation of the Old Testament book of Job, dated 1535 (I’ve modernised the spelling): “Now upon a time ... the servants of God came and stood before the Lord.”

Source: www.worldwidewords.org

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    ... and while upon may be archaic (or at least out of fashion), we have no problem at all with on when dealing with time, at least at the day level. We tend to use in for months and years and at for hours, minutes and seconds, but if it happened on St. Ralph the Liar's Day, it happened on St. Ralph the Liar's day. – bye Sep 2 '14 at 20:51
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upon (prep.)

early 12c., from Old English uppan (prep.) "on, upon, up to, against," from up (adv.) + on (prep.); probably influenced by Scandinavian sources such as Old Norse upp a.

Source:

http://www.etymonline.com

You might also want to check this out:

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Source (not in copyright by the way):

Johnson, Samuel. A Dictionary of the English Language: in which the Words Are Deduced from their Originals, and Illustrated in their Different Significations by Examples from the Best Writers. Vol. II. The Sixth Edition. London: 1785.

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If you write a chronicle the oldest events are on top and the new ones below. So you can say "up in the past/upon in the past" or you can say "once + up/upon (in) a (far) time. "upon" is just an elevated variant of "up".

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