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"Once upon a time" is the traditional way to start a fairy tale using the English language. But how traditional is it? I'm trying to find the first uses of this expression with this purpose. So far I have found a text from 1672 using Ngram that says:

Could Mistriss Mopsa her self have furnished you with a more pleasant and worshipful Tale? It wants nothing of perfection, but that it doth not begin with Once upon a time?

So by the 17th century it already was a traditional expression for beginning tales. But I would like to know how far does that tradition go. What are the first English texts that reflect the use of "once upon a time" to start a tale? When were those texts written? Are there any older versions of the idiom that could be the origin of this one?

  • The origin is oral, not written. The term was created specifically to introduce stories told to children who are too young to read. – wetcircuit Oct 4 '18 at 15:09
  • A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away ... – Hot Licks Oct 4 '18 at 17:49
  • @wetcircuit: You may be right, but dare I say <sup>citation needed</sup>? – PJTraill Feb 12 at 10:01
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This expression and similar are found under definition 8a(g) in the MED:

in phrases freq. introducing a narrative: ones on a time, in (on, upon) a time, in (on) on time, etc., once upon a time, once; also, in adv. constructions without prep.: o (on) time, on a certain occasion, once

Coincidentally, you can also see "on a time" in this free OED page.

One of the first examples is from c1225(?c1200) from Þe Liflade of St. Juliana. Although it's only in the third paragraph, it still serves to start off the rest of the story:

Wes iþon [Roy: bi þon] time as þe redunge telleð þe modi Maximien keiser irome...

This translates as:

In that time, as the legend tells, the proud emperor Maximian was in Rome...

St. Katherine also from circa 1225 has a similar line:

Constantin ant Maxence weren on ane time [c1225 Bodl. on a time] as in keiseres stude hehest irome.

Which translates (according to me) as:

Constantine and Maxentius were on a time...

There's also Speculum Guy, c1330:

A tale i wole ȝou telle Off an eorl..Gy of Warwyk was his name, Hou on a time he stod in þouht.

A tale I wish to tell you of an earl... Guy of Warwick was his name, how on a time he stood in thought. (translation mine)

Chaucer, in his Knight's Tale, uses the wording "ones on a time", but this happens in the middle of the story.

It seems the wording with upon came later:

Galien seith and tellith þat vp-on a tyme he sey a child þat had þe fallyng evell.

Galien says and tells that upon a time he... (translation mine)
A Middle English Translation of Macer Floridus de Viribus Herbarum, a1450


Also related is "once upon a day", which dates back to circa 1380:

Onys..oppon a day..he slow kynges three.
Sir Ferumbras

  • 1
    Interesting answer! It seems possible that "once on a time [or day]" is a generalization of a standard, more specific opening of a story to establish its time frame, along the lines of "In the days of King Arthur..." I don't remember specifically which Icelandic saga does this, but one of them begins with the words (literally translated), "That was in the days of Harald Fairhair..." When the particular time frame is irrelevant to the particulars of a story, resorting to the generalized (and eventually formulaic) time setting makes perfect sense. – Sven Yargs Oct 4 '18 at 16:58
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    On ane time would be ‘on a time’, not ‘on that time’, but otherwise excellent answer. It’s worth noting that the phrase-type itself (not its precise form, but its function of starting a story by setting it in the far past) is very old and common to many languages, often in very similar forms: French “il était une fois” and Danish “der var engang” (all lit. ‘there was once’), Japanese 昔々 mukashi-mukashi and Irish fadó fadó (‘long, long ago’), Greek μια φορά και έναν καιρό (‘one time and one time)… and then there’s Korean “back when tigers used to smoke”! – Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 4 '18 at 17:17
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Thanks, I fixed that. I was actually in a rush writing this answer :P – Laurel Oct 4 '18 at 17:25
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    There seems to be a fundamental change between the earlier examples and the later ones. The earlier ones place the story in a specific time frame whereas the later ones use the phrase once upon a time to specifically not place it in a real timeframe. This seems to follow developments in storytelling. The old ones, such as those in Norse, Old Irish and Middle Welsh draw no distinction between truth and fiction and try to make them sound true by setting them in a timeframe. The fairy-tale, where they are acknowledged fiction was a new development and needed a replacement for "in the time of". – David Robinson Oct 4 '18 at 17:50
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The Wessex Gospels (1175) contain the words (in Matthew 24:44) :

mannes sune wile cumen on þare tyde þe ge nyten

TR Interlinear (Wessex at foot of page)

The son of man will come on a time (or on 'some' time) that ye reckon not.

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