How is the meaning of "once upon a time" different from "a long time ago"?

Literally, is that what it means? There seems to be repetition in once and upon a time. How is this sentence broken up?

3 Answers 3


According to OED, once upon a time means at some time in the past (used as a conventional opening of a story). or formerly.

On the other hand, a long time ago means a long time ago in the past. Now, they could be used interchangeably in some cases, but once upon time could refer to something that happened a few days or a month ago, which is not long time ago, while the other couldn't.

  • Can you explain how the words fit in to the meaning?
    – JNF
    Sep 9, 2012 at 7:34
  • 1
    There’s some redundancy in the phrase. Once can mean ‘on some past occasion’, upon is a now obsolete word meaning ‘in, at, or during (any period of time)’ and a time is ‘the period during which an action, condition, or state continues’. It has its origins in Middle English where it occurred in different forms. Sep 9, 2012 at 7:52
  • @JNF: Once upon a time she would have been jealous, but no longer. A long time ago(maybe when I was a child), I visited my uncle who lives in the States.
    – Noah
    Sep 10, 2012 at 6:59
  • @Noah, I meant as in the second part of my question, like Barrie's comment (which is helpful, but if another opinion/insight is available I'll gladly have it)
    – JNF
    Sep 10, 2012 at 8:04
  • @JNF: Barrie has it right. I just wanted to throw some examples, incase someone needs them.
    – Noah
    Sep 10, 2012 at 9:02

Once upon a time there was a little girl who loved discussing things over an Internet forum.

It wasn't a long time ago. A long time ago there were no Internet forums.


Once upon a time simply means "not too far from then" while long ago or a long ago means "being a longest time"

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