“Long time no see” or “Long time, no see” is an English expression used as a greeting by people who have not seen each other for a while. Its origins in American English appear to be an imitation of broken or pidgin English, and despite its ungrammaticality, it is widely accepted as a fixed expression. The phrase is a multiword expression that cannot be explained by the usual rules of English grammar due to the irregular syntax. It may derive ultimately from an English pidgin such as that spoken by Native Americans or Chinese, or an imitation of such. The lexicographer Eric Partridge notes that the phrase is akin to “no can do” and “chop chop“.
An early use of the phrase, though not as a greeting, is from Lieut.-Colonel James Campbell’s Excursions, Adventures, and Field-Sports in Ceylon (published 1843):
“Ma-am—long time no see wife—want go to Colombo see wife.”
The earliest appearance of the phrase “long time no see” in print recorded in Oxford English Dictionary dates to 1901, found in W. F. Drannan’s Thirty-One Years on the Plains and in the Mountains, in which a Native American man is recorded as greeting the narrator by saying, “Good morning. Long time no see you.” This example is intended to reflect usage in American Indian Pidgin English.
The phrase is often portrayed as originating either in Native American or in Chinese pidgin English. It may be compared to the Cantonese phrase 好耐冇見 (Jyutping: hou2noi6 mou5 gin3) and the Mandarin phrase 好久不見 (Trad.) / 好久不见 (Simp.), or hǎojiǔ bù jiàn (Pinyin), which is translated literally as “long time, no see” (or, word for word, “very long-time no see”). If from Chinese pidgin, it may be of US Chinatown origin, or alternatively British Far East. Alternatively, it may have been coined by native speakers in imitation of Native American pidgin (as in the pidgin used in cinematic portrayals, as in the language spoken by the character Tonto in the 1930s).
Who First Said “Long Time, No See” And In Which Language?
How many times has the average person been greeted with the phrase “long time, no see” after running into an old acquaintance? My guess is plenty. But how and why did such a grammatically awkward phrase become a widely accepted part of American speech?
It turns out there are, at least, two strong possibilities.
The first time “long time, no see” appeared in print was in the 1900 Western “Thirty-One Years on the Plains and in the Mountains, Or, the Last Voice from the Plains An Authentic Record of a Life Time of Hunting, Trapping, Scouting and Indian Fighting in the Far West, by William F. Drannan. That last part of the novel’s very long title is relevant here, as it gives a good indication of the kind of story Drannan wanted to tell.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Drannan used the phrase to describe an encounter with a Native American he had previously met, “I knew he had recognized me. When we rode up to him he said: ‘Good morning. Long time no see you,’ and at the same time presented the gun with breech foremost.”
The phrase would be used in a similar way in Jeff W. Hayes’ Tales of the Sierras, another Western published in 1900. Once again, the phrase was attributed to an American Indian, “Ugh, you squaw, she no long time see you: you go home mucha quick.”
While Drannan’s book was the first time this exact phrase appears in print, the exact origins of “long time, no see” are the subject of ongoing debate among linguists and historians.
The second widely accepted etymological explanation is that the phrase is a loan translation* from the Mandarin Chinese phrase “hǎojǐu bújiàn”, which means exactly “long time, no see.”
Eric Patridge’s “Dictionary of Catch Phrases American and British traces the term to the early 1900s, but says it has Asian origins and was brought back to England by members of the British Navy, who picked it up through the pidgin English used by the Chinese people they encountered.
There is a separate account that lends weight to this latter theory except that it involves members of the U.S. Navy. An excruciating letter published in Our Navy, the Standard Publication of the U.S. Navy, Volume 13 includes the following:
“Then Ah Sam, ancient Chinese tailor, familiarly known as ‘Cocky,’ after taking one good look at the lieutenant said, ‘Ah, Lidah, you belong my velly good flend. Long time no see you handsome facee.'”
As the Applied Applied Linguistics blog points out in the debate over whether “long time no see” has Native American or Chinese origins. “The earliest written usages are all native English speakers ‘reporting’ the speech of non-native speakers, from about 1840-1915. … The literature of that era is rife with stylized English attributed to non-native speakers — can we trust it?”
As the 20th century progressed, “long time no see” began to evolve from a phrase in broken English to a standard way to greet an old acquaintance. By 1920, the phrase makes it into Good Housekeeping magazine. The novelist Raymond Chandler used it in more than one of his books. In Farewell, My Lovely, Moose Malloy drolly tells his ex-girlfriend Velma, “Hiya, babe. Long time no see.” And in 1949, the poet Ogden Nash published his poem “Long Time No See, Bye Now” in The New Yorker. The poem introduces us to Mr. Latour, “an illiterate boor” who “calls poor people poor instead of underprivileged.”
Today, the phrase “long time no see” is so widespread as a greeting that there’s nothing to indicate the term’s origins, be they Native American or Mandarin Chinese.
Given its ubiquitous usage in books, conversations, movies, songs and television programs, the phrase is now widely identified with American culture. So much so that it was included in Ya Gotta Know It!: A Conversational Approach to American Slang for the ESL Classroom. Long time, no see has gone from pidgin English to entrenched, American English slang in little over a century.
Greeting is an act of communication in which human beings intentionally make their presence known to each other, to show attention to, and to suggest a type of relationship (usually cordial) or social status (formal or informal) between individuals or groups of people coming in contact with each other. Greetings are sometimes used just prior to a conversation or to greet in passing, such as on a sidewalk or trail. While greeting customs are highly culture– and situation-specific and may change within a culture depending on social status and relationship, they exist in all known human cultures. Greetings can be expressed both audibly and physically, and often involve a combination of the two. This topic excludes military and ceremonial salutes but includes rituals other than gestures. A greeting, or salutation, can also be expressed in written communications, such as letters and emails.
Some epochs and cultures have had very elaborate greeting rituals, e.g. greeting a sovereign. Conversely, secret societies have often furtive or arcane greeting gestures and rituals, such as a secret handshake, which allows members to recognize each other.
In some languages and cultures, the same word or gesture is used as both greeting and farewell. Examples are “Good day” in English, “Sat Shri Akaal” in Punjabi, “As-Salamualaikum” in Arabic, “Aloha” in Hawaiian, “Shalom” in Hebrew, “Namaste” in Hindi and “Ciao” in Italian. The bow and handshake are also used for both greeting and leave-taking.
A greeting can consist of an exchange of formal expression, kisses, handshakes, hugs, and various gestures. The form of greeting is determined by social etiquette, as well as by the relationship of the people.
Beyond the formal greeting, which may involve a verbal acknowledgment and sometimes a handshake, facial expression, gestures, body language, and eye contact can all signal what type of greeting is expected. Gestures are the most obvious signal, for instance, greeting someone with open arms is generally a sign that a hug is expected. However, crossing arms can be interpreted as a sign of hostility. The facial expression, body language, and eye contact reflect emotions and interest level. A frown, slouching and lowered eye contact suggests disinterest, while smiling and an exuberant attitude is a sign of welcome.
Many different gestures are used throughout the world as simple greetings. In Western cultures, the handshake is very common, though it has numerous subtle variations in the strength of grip, the vigour of the shake, the dominant position of one hand over the other, and whether or not the left hand is used.
Historically, when men normally wore hats out of doors, male greetings to people they knew, and sometimes those they did not, involved touching, raising slightly (“tipping”), or removing their hat in a variety of gestures. This basic gesture remained normal in very many situations from the Middle Ages until men typically ceased wearing hats in the mid-20th century. Hat-raising began with an element of recognition of superiority, where only the socially inferior party might perform it, but gradually lost this element; King Louis XIV of France made a point of at least touching his hat to all women he encountered. However, the gesture was never used by women, for whom their head-covering included considerations of modesty. When a man was not wearing a hat he might touch his hair to the side of the front of his head to replicate a hat-tipping gesture. This was typically performed by lower classmen to social superiors, such as peasants to the land-owner, and is known as “tugging the forelock”, which still sometimes occurs as a metaphor for submissive behaviour.
The Arabic term salaam (literally “peace”, from the spoken greeting that accompanies the gesture), refers to the practice of placing the right palm on the heart, before and after a handshake.
In Moroccan society, same-sex people don’t greet each other the same as do opposite sex. While same-sex people (men or women) will shake hands, kiss on the cheek and even hug multiple times, a man and woman greeting each other in public won’t go further than a handshake. Which is due to the Moroccan culture that is quite conservative. Verbal greetings in Morocco can go from a basic salaam, to asking about life details to make sure the other person is doing good.
A Chinese greeting features the right fist placed in the palm of the left hand and both shaken back and forth two or three times, it may be accompanied by a head nod or bow. The gesture may be used on meeting and parting, and when offering thanks or apologies.
Adab, meaning respect and politeness, is a hand gesture used as a Muslim greeting of south Asian Muslims, especially of Urdu-speaking communities of Uttar Pradesh, Hyderabadi Muslims, Bengali Muslims and Muhajir people of Pakistan. The gesture involves raising the right hand towards the face with palm inwards such that it is in front of the eyes and the fingertips are almost touching the forehead, as the upper torso is bent forward.  It is typical for the person to say “adab arz hai“, or just “adab“. It is often answered with the same or the word “Tasleem” is said as an answer or sometimes it is answered with a facial gesture of acceptance.
In Indonesia, a nation with a huge variety of cultures and religions, many greetings are expressed, from the formalized greeting of the highly stratified and hierarchical Javanese to the more egalitarian and practical greetings of outer islands.
Javanese, Batak and other ethnicities currently or formerly involved in the armed forces will salute a Government-employed superior, and follow with a deep bow from the waist or short nod of the head and a passing, loose handshake. Hand position is highly important; the superior’s hand must be higher than the inferior’s. Muslim men will clasp both hands, palms together at the chest and utter the correct Islamic slametan (greeting) phrase, which may be followed by cheek-to-cheek contact, a quick hug or loose handshake. Pious Muslim women rotate their hands from a vertical to the perpendicular prayer-like position in order to barely touch the fingertips of the male greeter and may opt-out of the cheek-to-cheek contact.
If the male is an Abdi Dalem royal servant, courtier or particularly “peko-peko” (taken directly from Japanese to mean obsequious) or even a highly formal individual, he will retreat backwards with head downcast, the left arm crossed against the chest and the right arm hanging down, never showing his side or back to his superior. His head must always be lower than that of his superior. Younger Muslim males and females will clasp their elder’s or superior’s outstretched hand to the forehead as a sign of respect and obeisance.
If a manual worker or a person with obviously dirty hands salute or greets an elder or superior, he will show deference to his superior and avoid contact by bowing, touching the right forehead in a very quick salute or a distant “slamet” gesture.
The traditional Javanese Sungkem involves clasping the palms of both hands together, aligning the thumbs with the nose, turning the head downwards and bowing deeply, bending from the knees. In a royal presence, the one performing sungkem would kneel at the base of the throne.
A gesture called a wai is used in Thailand, where the hands are placed together palm to palm, approximately at nose level, while bowing. The wai is similar in form to the gesture referred to by the Japanese term gassho by Buddhists. In Thailand, the men and women would usually press two palms together and bow a little while saying “Sawadee ka” (female speaker) or “Sawadee krap” (male speaker).
Native American Pidgin English
Native American Pidgin English (AIPE) was an English-based pidgin spoken by Europeans and Native Americans in the United States. The main geographic regions AIPE was spoken in was British Columbia, Oregon, and Washington.
Native American Pidgin English is much more similar to English than many other English-based pidgins, and could be considered a mere ethnolect of American English.
The earliest variety of Pidgin English to appear in British North America is AIPE. AIPE was used by both Europeans and the Native Americans in the contact situation and is therefore considered to be a true pidgin. A pidgin language is made up of two languages sometimes spoken by only one group, but because AIPE was spoken by both groups some would say this makes it a true pidgin. The European people are the ones who taught the Native Americans how to speak English so they could develop AIPE together. This helped them communicate more efficiently.
Native American Pidgin English’s phonology is characterized primarily by decreasing the English phonemic record, through definite exchanges and the loss of some phonemes, together with other distributed phenomena.
Unknown. Attested US 1901, presented as pidgin English by a Native American. Possibly a calque of Cantonese, comparable to no can do or chop-chop – if so, most likely US Chinatown origin, alternatively British Far East such as Hong Kong. Alternatively, native American origin, or native coinage as pidgin, particularly in cinematic portrayals of native Americans; compare language used by Tonto (1930s).
Loan translation, the Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines the term as “a compound, derivative, or phrase that is introduced into a language through translation of the constituents of a term in another language (as superman from German Übermensch).”
- long time no hear
- Long time, no smell“Long time, no smell” used as an affectionate greeting. (Hawaiian youth usage. US, 1982).
- “long (a.1 c)”. Oxford English Dictionary. 1989.
- cited as an example by Attia, Mohammed A. (2006). “Accommodating Multiword Expressions in an Arabic LFG Grammar”. In Salakoski, Tapio (Ed.) Fifth International Conference on Natural Language Processing, pp. 87–109. Springer. ISBN 3-540-37334-9.
- Partridge, Eric, and Beale, Paul (2002). A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, p. 1386. Routledge. ISBN 0-415-29189-5, ISBN 978-0-415-29189-7.
- Campbell, James (1843). Excursions, Adventures, and Field-Sports in Ceylon; Its Commercial and Military Importance, and Numerous Advantages to the British Emigrant, Vol. 1, p. 254. London: T. and W. Boone. (Free download: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=hvd.hwf7pc; https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc1.$b576015)
- Dalzell T and Victor T (2014). The Concise New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English. 2nd ed. Routledge. p. 488.