Once upon a time...

Why do folktales traditionally start with “Once upon a time?” Wouldn’t just “Once [there was a … whatever]” or “A long time ago” or some other phrase which is actually used in a non-folktale context work just as well? Who coined it? Google gives me nothin’ - just various USES of the phrase

In the South, fairy tales start: “Now, ya’ll ain’t gonna believe this shit…”


One thing I thought of was that maybe it’s a wierd translation from the Brothers Grimm. Anyone know if “Once upon a time” is any more meaningful in German than English?

Could very well be. From Wikipedia

And a similar phrase can be found in many of the other languages cited.

I think in Spanish they do something like “Erase una vez…” which has no literal meaning I can think of to translate – maybe “there was a time” but I’m not really sure what the reflexive is for in this instance.

The French equivalent is <i>il était une fois…</i>, which translates quite literally as “There once was…”

Did you look at the link I gave?

I think you need a way to state the form of the tale. When people got news and history through verbal communication, and when a lot of people believed in ghosts, magic, trolls and so forth, there’s a need for the storyteller to declare that what he or she is about to tell is not actual events that happened once, but it ain’t no bullshit either, so you better listen nonetheless. So, “once upon a time…”, and you got your open minded attention.

In the Military they start “No shit, there I was…”

or the classic, “we were out drinking one night and…”

…IN the CONgo!

Indeed. The point I’m hung up on, however, is not that folktales need a formalised start - I get that - but why the English version of that formalised start * is completely nonsensical*. “Upon a time” - what does that mean? “On top of a chronological period”? Nobody would ever use the phrase “upon a time” in any context outside of a folktale, so how did anyone ever dream it up in that context?

I see from Exapno’s useful-looking link though that there’s other languages have it worse than us - check out Classical Arabic, for instance! But most of the different language versions in the wiki cite do, in fact, make complete sense in their own languages. Not ours though…