Why do we say “once upon a time” when beginning a story? The answer involves great time, great distance, and great imagination.
“Once upon a time” is a formulaic beginning that primes the listener for a story and frames the narrative to come. It is vague and imprecise on purpose—it’s a signal that the story is fictional and invites readers or listeners to open their imagination. But if you really think about it, this common phrase used to begin a story doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. “Once” means something happened, but how can that something be “upon” a time?” Well, until fairly recently, “upon” was often attached to any time-related phrase where we might use “at” or “on” today.
History of “Once Upon a Time”
It is believed that many different variants of this archaic-sounding phrase have been a part of English storytelling since before Chaucer’s day. By this time, lines like “once on a time” or “once upon a day” had already become conventional, as evidenced by their inclusion in enduring literary works.
The first recorded use of such a phrase, in this case “Onys uppon a day,” was in 1380 in the story Sir Ferumbras. This was a Middle English romantic poem that was part of a collection of literature on the history of Charlemagne’s France.
Geoffrey Chaucer also used the similar phrase “once on its use in The Canterbury Tales, published in 1385.
Yet another variation is found in Miles Coverdale’s 1535 translation of the book of Job: “Now upon a time . . . the servants of God came and stood before the Lord.”
Finally, the fully formed phrase “once upon a time” has been around in oral and written form since about 1600. It’s also likely that storytelling conventions in French, German, and Scandinavian fairy tales were born out in English translations. They often have similar first lines in their respective language, such as “there was once” or “once” or “there was a time.”
Time and Space: The Power of Story
“Once upon a time” conveys distance and time far removed from here and now. The power of story is that it allows us to imagine and process things outside the constraints of our everyday lives. Maria Konnikova explains that stories allow us to reflect on the world in a nonthreatening way through psychological distancing. The distancing is actually what helps us connect to the story, discern patterns, and weave together pieces of ourselves that would otherwise remain without tangible expression. At a distance, we have the freedom to engage in fantasy and reflection to comprehend more about reality than we could when we are in the thick of real life. We can learn to empathize, play, imagine, and abstract. We then translate the truth of a story into the language of our reality to overcome real problems.
Think about Star Wars—a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away is a great place to explore the idea of having both light and dark within oneself, the larger battle of good vs. evil, and the mystery of a higher power or force greater than humanity.
Back When Tigers Smoked: Beginning a Story in Other Languages
Other languages, too, have phrases that signal the beginning of a story and create space in terms of time and distance that can be filled in through imagination. Let’s take a look at how stories begin around the world.
Many opening phrases simply mean “a long time ago” or “it’s an old story.” Romance and Germanic languages typically use some variation of “there was once” or “once it happened”—creating a distance in time.
In some languages, such as Russian, the phrase used to begin a story translates to “in some kingdom” or “in some land.” Czech uses an interesting phrase that means “Beyond seven mountain ranges, beyond seven rivers.” Some other Eastern European languages have similar phrases that convey great distance, like Lithuanian: “Beyond nine seas, beyond nine lagoons.”
Some simply signal that we are indeed about to hear a story. In Hausa, a West African language, a narrative begins, “A story, a story. Let it go, let it come.”
Some openers draw on the value of oral traditions, like the Iraqw opening line spoken in Tanzania and Kenya: “I remember something that our father told me and that is this.” Likewise, in Chile, one classic formula is “Listen to tell it, and tell it to teach it.”
And some openings are designed to draw listeners in by engaging a fantastical, mythical, far-off world. A traditional Turkish opening phrase translates to “Once there was, and once there wasn’t. In the long-distant days of yore, when haystacks winnowed sieves, when genies played jereed in the old bathhouse, [when] fleas were barbers, [when] camels were town criers, [and when] I softly rocked my baby grandmother to sleep in her creaking cradle, there was/lived, in an exotic land, far, far away, a/an . . .”
In Korean, one way to introduce a story is to say, “Back when tigers used to smoke [tobacco] . . .” This one is worth digging into. The tiger is a defining symbol of Korea and features in the Korean origin myth as an animal that had the potential to become human. A tigress and a she-bear who lived together in a cave both wanted to become human. The two animals were promised by a heavenly prince that if they stayed in their cave for 100 days and ate only mugwort and garlic, they would emerge as humans. The tiger lost patience and ran out into the forest, while the bear persisted and became a woman who gave birth to the king Tangun.
As a prominent figure in Korean folklore, the tiger is a symbol of strength, power, and protection but is also often the one who is outwitted or who becomes the butt of a joke. The dual symbol of the tiger is both revered and lovingly ridiculed.
(As an aside, smoking has been widely practiced in Korea since the introduction of tobacco in the early 1600s. Everyone, old and young, male and female, rich and poor, smoked tobacco, until the late 1800s when it fell out of fashion for women. Growing tobacco boosted the economy, tobacco was seen as medicinal, and smoking became a social activity. Smoking has decreased in South Korea in recent decades but is still more prevalent than in other parts of the world.)
But why, in the phrase used to begin a story, are tigers the ones smoking? No one knows exactly why. It may simply be an indication of a highly fantastical story, given that tigers don’t and can’t smoke (at least not of their own volition). It’s a signal that a story is about to take place, drawing on the rich representation of the tiger in stories that people are already familiar with.
How does your story begin?
Colberg, Jessica. “Tangun: A Korean Creation Myth.” Retrieved January 22, 2022, from http://www.laits.utexas.edu/doherty/plan2/colbergcreation.html.
Kester, Marie. “The Powerful History Behind Once Upon a Time.” History of Yesterday, February 1, 2021. https://historyofyesterday.com/the-history-behind-once-upon-a-time-1d2eba810dcc.
Konnikova, Maria. “The Power of Once Upon a Time: The Story to Tame Wild Things.” Scientific American, May 8, 2012. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/literally-psyched/the-power-of-once-upon-a-time-a-story-to-tame-the-wild-things/.
Madrid, Anthony. “Once Upon a Time and Other Formulaic Folktale Flourishes.” The Paris Review, May 23, 2018. https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2018/05/23/once-upon-a-time-and-other-formulaic-folktale-flourishes/.
“Once Upon a Time.” Wikipedia. Retrieved January 11, 2022, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Once_upon_a_time.
Quinion, Michael. “Once Upon a Time.” World Wide Words, December 29, 2007. https://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-onc1.htm. TOTA. “Origins of Korean Culture.” Retrieved January 22, 2022, from https://www.tota.world/article/152/