Once upon a time

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Frontispiece to The How and Why Library, 1909

"Once upon a time" is a stock phrase that has been used in some form since at least 1380 (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) in storytelling in the English language and since 1600 has opened many oral narratives, which often then end with "and they all lived happily ever after," or, originally, "happily until their deaths." These are examples of the narrative form and occur most frequently in the narratives produced for children aged between 6 and 8.[1]

The phrase particularly prevails in fairy tales for younger children, almost always opening them. It was commonly used in the original translations of the stories of Charles Perrault as a translation for the French "il était une fois", of Hans Christian Andersen as a translation for the Danish "der var engang," (literally "there was once") and the Brothers Grimm as a translation for the German "es war einmal" (literally "it was once").

The phrase is also frequently used in such oral stories as retellings of myths, fables, and folklore.

It is used almost always in past tense sentences.

Other languages[edit]

The "Story-starting phrase" is a common feature of many languages.

Language Common beginning Common beginning (English translation) Common ending Common ending (English translation)
Albanian Na ishte një herë... Once there was... Dhe ata jetuanumtur pergjithmonë And they lived happy forever
Afrikaans Eendag, lank gelede... One day, a long time ago... Fluit, fluit, die storie is uit Whistle, whistle, the story is done
Algerian Arabic Hajitek ma jitek (حجيتك ما جيتك) I've told you what's coming Unknown Unknown
Amharic በድሮ ዘመን... Once a long time ago... ተረቴን መልሱ አፌን በዳቦ አብሱ:: Return my story and feed me bread.(It is a way of saying tell me a story for the one I have told you.)
Classical Arabic kân yâ mâ kân fî qadîmi zzamân wsalifî al`aSri wal'awân...

(كان يا ما كان،في قديم الزمان، وسالف العصر والأوان)

There was, oh what there was (or there wasn't) in the oldest of days and ages and times... Unknown Unknown
Assamese Bahut dinor agot... Long time ago... Unknown Unknown
Armenian Լինում է, չի լինում... (Linum e, chi linum) There was, there was not... Երկնքից երեք խնձոր է ընկնում՝ Մեկը գրողին, մեկը պատմողին, մեկն էլ լսողին: (Yerknkits yereq khndzor e ynknum` Meky groxin, meky patmoxin, mekn el lsoxin) 3 apples fall from the sky/heaven - one for the writer/author, one for the storyteller, one for the listener Note: (the three apples can "be given" to different people, when people tell stories they change the three to whatever they like. The version noted here is the most common/known)
Azeri Biri var idi, biri yox idi... There was, (and) there was not... Unknown Unknown
Basque Bazen behin... Once upon a time... ...eta hala bazan ala ez bazan, sar dadila kalabazan eta atera dadila ...-ko plazan ... and it was or it was not, come in in the pumpkin and come out in the square of... (name of a town).
Bengali ek je chhilo raja... Once there lived a king aamaar kothati furolo; Note gaachhti murolo My story ends and the spinach is eaten by the goat. (cf A Goat eats the root of a herb unlike cows,so being consumed by goats figuratively means something being irreversibly ended)
Ek deshe chhilo... In some country, there was...
Bulgarian Имало едно време...
(Imalo edno vreme...)
There was, once upon a time... ...и заживели щастливо до края на дните си (...i zazhiveli shtastlivo do kraya na dnite si) ...and they lived happily until the end of their days
...и три дни яли, пили и се веселили (...i tri dni yali, pili i se veselili) ...and for three days they ate, drank and had fun.
Catalan Hi havia una vegada There was a time... Vet aquí un gat, vet aquí un gos, aquest conte ja s'ha fos. I vet aquí un gos, vet aquí un gat, aquest conte s'ha acabat. Here's a cat, here's a dog, this tale is already melted. And here's a dog, here's a cat, this tale is finished.
Temps era temps... Time was time... I conte contat, conte acabat Tale told, tale finished
Chinese T: 很久很久以前
S: 很久很久以前
P: Hěnjiǔ hěnjiǔ yǐqián
A very very long time ago... T: 從此,他們過著幸福快樂的日子
S: 从此,他们过着幸福快乐的日子
P: Cóngcǐ, tāmenguòzhe xìngfú kuàilè de rìzi
... and they lived a happy life
Croatian Bio jednom jedan... There was once a... ...i živjeli su sretno do kraja života. ...and they lived happily until the end of their lives.
Czech Bylo nebylo, ... There was, there was not... ... a žili šťastně až do smrti. ...and they lived happily until they died.
Byl jednou jeden... There was once a ... ...a jestli neumřeli, žijí tam dodnes. ...and if they have not died yet, they still live there today.
Zazvonil zvonec a pohádky je konec. A bell rang and the tale comes to its end.
Danish Der var engang... There was, once... Og de levede lykkeligt til deres dages ende. And they lived happily until the end of their days.
Engang for længe siden... Once a long time ago... Og hvis de ikke er døde, lever de endnu. And if they're not dead, they still live.
Dutch Er was eens... Once there was... ... en ze leefden nog lang en gelukkig. ...and they lived long and happily.
En toen kwam er een varken met een lange snuit, en het verhaaltje is uit. And then came a pig with a long snout, and the story is out (over).
En toen kwam er een olifant met een lange snuit, en die blies het verhaaltje uit. And then came an elephant with a long snout, and blew the story out.
Esperanto Iam estis... Once there was Unknown Unknown
Estonian Elasid kord... There once lived a... ... ja nad elasid õnnelikult elu lõpuni. ...and they lived happily until the end of their lives.
Seitsme maa ja mere taga elas kord... Behind seven lands and seas there lived a... ...ja kui nad surnud ei ole, siis elavad nad õnnelikult edasi ...and if they're not dead, they still live happily.
Faroese Einaferð var tað... Once there was... Og tey livdu lukkuliga allar teirra dagar. and they lived happily all their days.
snip, snap, snúti, so var søgan úti. snip, snap, stout, then the story was out.
Filipino Noong unang panahon... At the beginning of time... Unknown Unknown
Finnish Olipa kerran... Once there was... Ja he elivät onnellisina elämänsä loppuun saakka. And they lived happily until the ends of their lives.
Sen pituinen se. That's the length of it.
French Il était une fois There was one time / There was once... ...et ils vécurent heureux et eurent beaucoup d'enfants ...and they lived happily and had many children.
...et ils vécurent heureux jusqu'à la fin des temps ...and they lived happily until the end of time.
German Es war einmal... Once there was... ...und wenn sie nicht gestorben sind, dann leben sie noch heute. ...and if they haven't died, they are still living today.
In den alten Zeiten, als das Wünschen noch geholfen hat Back in the days when it was still of help to wish for a thing,... ...und sie lebten glücklich und zufrieden bis ans Ende ihrer Tage. ...and they lived happily and contentedly until the end of their days.
Georgian იყო და არა იყო რა, იყო...
(iko da ara iko ra, iko...)
There was, and there was not, there was... ჭირი – იქა, ლხინი – აქა, ქატო – იქა, ფქვილი – აქა

(Čiri – ik′a, lxini – ak′a, k′at′o – ik′a, p′k′vili – ak′a)

Disaster there, feast here... bran there, flour here...
Goemai (Nigeria, West Chadic) Unknown Unknown Tamtis noe lat / dok ba muaan yi wa My tale has finished, (it) has returned to go (and) come home.
Greek (Modern) Μια φορά κι έναν καιρό...
(Mia fora ki enan kairo...)
Once and a time... (time = epoch/era/age) ...και ζήσανε αυτοί καλά και εμείς καλύτερα. (...kai zīsane autoi kala kai emeis kalytera) And they lived well, and we lived better
Gujarati ઘણાં વર્ષો પહેલાંની વાત છે
(Ghaṇã vaṣô pahelãnī vāta che)
This is an old story. Unknown Unknown
એક જમાનામાં... (Eka jamānāmã...) In one era, ... Unknown Unknown
વર્ષો પહેલાં... (Vaṣô pahelã...) A long back Unknown Unknown
Hebrew הָיֹה הָיָה פעם
(Hayoh hayah pa'am...)
Once there was... והם חיו באושר ועושר עד עצם היום הזה (Ve'hem ẖayu be'osher va'osher ad etzem hayom hazeh) And they lived in happiness and luxury to this very day.
הָיֹה הָיוּ פעם
(Hayo hayu pa'am...)
Once there were...
Hindi किसी ज़माने में (Kisī zamāne meṃ) In one era, ... Unknown Unknown
बहुत पुरानी बात है
(Bahuta purānī bāta hai)
It's an old story, ...
Hungarian Egyszer volt, hol nem volt, volt egyszer egy... Once there was, where there wasn't, there was a... Itt a vége, fuss el véle! This is the end; run away with it.
Boldogan éltek, amíg meg nem haltak. They lived happily until they died.
Icelandic Einu sinni fyrir langa löngu... Once a long time ago. Og þau lifðu hamingjusöm til æviloka And the lived happy for the rest of their lives.
Einu sinni var... Once there was... Köttur úti í mýri, setti upp á sér stýrið og úti er ævintýrið A cat in the bog put up his tail and there ends the fairytale.
Köttur úti í mýri, setti upp á sér stýri, úti er ævintýri Cat out in the swamp, lifted its tail, the adventure is finished.
Indonesian Pada zaman dahulu kala... A long time ago... Dan mereka hidup bahagia selama-lamanya. And they lived happily ever after.
Iraqw (Tanzania, Kenya, Cushitic) tokaro-yâ Once upon a time Unknown Unknown
In oral literature: Kar aníng te-'ée' to-ká a inhláw ar aakó doo-rén ni alki'-a i tí I remember something that our father told me and that is this: Unknown Unknown
Irish Fadó, fadó, fadó a bhí ann (agus bhí rí i nGaillimh) A long, long, long time ago it was (and there was a king in Galway) Unknown Unknown
Italian C'era una volta... There was once... E vissero felici e contenti. And they lived happy and content.
Japanese 昔昔 (昔々, むかしむかし, Mukashi mukashi) Long ago, long ago... めでたしめでたし
(Medetashi medetashi)
So blissful
Korean 옛날 옛적에...
(Yet-nal Yet-jeok-e...)
A long, long time ago... 그리고 행복하게 살았답니다
(Geurigo haeng-bok ha-gae sal-at damnida)
And they lived happily after that.
Kannada Ondanondu kaaladalli... Once, in a long past age,... Unknown Unknown
Koti (Mozambique, Bantu) Rakú z'éepo waarí-vó oswááipu nwúlw'eéne saána Once upon the time, there was a truly great friendship... Unknown Unknown
Kyrgyz илгери-илгери...
A long, long time ago... Unknown Unknown
Latin Olim... At that time, Once Unknown Unknown
Latvian Reiz sen senos laikos... Once long ago in times long gone Unknown Unknown
Lithuanian Vieną kartą... Once upon the time Ir aš ten buvau, alų midų gėriau, per barzdą varvėjo, burnoj neturėjau And I was there, drank some mead ale, dribbled through my beard, had not in my mouth
Luxembourgish Et war eemol...
(old orthography: Et wor eemol...)
Once there was... An wann se net gestuerwen sin, dann liewen se nach haut ...and if they haven't died yet, they are still living today.
Macedonia Си беше еднаш...
(Si beshe ednash...)
Once upon the time there was... Unknown Unknown
Malayalam Pandu oridathu... Long ago, at a place... Unknown Unknown
Malay Pada suatu masa dahulu... Once upon a time Unknown Unknown
Marathi कोणे एके काळी...
kone eke kaali...)
in a very old time... आणि ते सुखाने राहू लागले
aani te sukhane raahu laagle)
and they lived happily ever after
Maragoli Kenyan language related to other Luhya languages Mmadikhu ga khaare In olden days Unknown Unknown
Maltese Darba, fost l-oħrajn... Once upon a time... U għexu henjin u kuntenti għal dejjem And they lived happily and contentedly ever after.
Moroccan Arabic حجيتك ما جيتك (Hajitek ma jitek) I've told you what's coming Unknown Unknown
Nepali language एका देशमा (eka desh ma) Once in a country... Unknown Unknown
Norwegian Det var en gang... There was, once... Og så levde de lykkelige alle sine dager And then they lived happily for the remainder of their days.
Og er de ikke døde, så lever de ennå. And if they're not dead, they still live.
Snipp, snapp, snute, så er eventyret ute. Snip, snap, snute (snout), then this adventure is finished.
Occitan Un còp èra... There was one time / There was once...
Persian روزی روزگاری (Ruzi, Ruzegaari) One day, One time به پایان آمد این دفتر حکایت همچنان باقیست

(be payan amad in daftar, hekayat hamchenan baaghist)

This book has come to end but there is still story to be told
یکی بود، یکی نبود، غیراز خدا هیچکس نبود

(yeki bud, yeki nabud, gheyr az khoda hich kas nabud)

There was one, there wasn't one, there was no one beside the Lord. قصه‌ی ما به سر رسید کلاغه به خونش نرسید

(gheseye maa be sar resid, kalaghe be khoonash naresid)

The tale has been finished, but the crow has not yet arrived at his house.
Pashto داسي کار وو چي
(Daasi kaar wo che)
There was this work that... Unknown Unknown
داسي چل وو چي
(Daasi chal wo che)
There was this work that... Unknown Unknown
Polish (Dawno, dawno temu,) za siedmioma górami, za siedmioma lasami... (A long, long time ago,) beyond seven mountains, beyond seven forests... ...i żyli długo i szczęśliwie. ...and they lived long and happily.
Za siedmioma górami, za siedmioma rzekami... Beyond seven mountains, beyond seven rivers... ...a ja tam byłem, miód i wino piłem. ...and I was there [usually at a wedding] too, and drank mead and wine.
Portuguese Era uma vez... There was, once... ...e viveram felizes para sempre ...and they lived happily forever.
Qiang Gver gver ngue du... A long long time ago... Unknown Unknown
Romanian A fost odată, ca niciodată... There once was, (as never before)... ...şi au trăit fericiţi până la adânci bătrâneţi. ...and they lived happily until old age.
Russian Давным-давно
Long, long time ago... И жили они долго и счастливо.
(I zhili oni dolgo i s-chastlivo.)
...and they lived long and happily.
(В некотором царстве, в некотором государстве) Жил, был...

((V nekotorom tsarstve, v nekotorom goosudarstve) Zhil byl...)

(In some kingdom, in some land) There lived, there was...
Sanskrit पुराकाले (Pūrākāle) In the ancient time... Unknown Unknown
कदाचित् (Kadājit) Once upon the time, At any time Unknown Unknown
Scots (missing original) In the days of auld lang syne Unknown Unknown
Serbian Једном давно...
(Jednom davno...);

Некада давно...
(Nekada davno...)

Once, a long time ago... ...и живеше сретно/срећно до краја живота. (...i živeše sretno/srećno do kraja života.) ...and they lived happily for the rest of their lives.
Била једном једна...
(fem., Bila jednom jedna)

Био једном један...
(masc., Bio jednom jedan)
Било једном једно...
(neuter, Bilo jednom jedno)

There once was one... ...и живеше дуго и сретно/срећно. (...i živeše dugo i sretno/srećno.) ...and they lived long and happily.
Shona Paivapo... A long time ago, there existed Unknown Unknown
Slovak Kde bolo, tam bolo... Where it was, there it was... ...a žili šťastne až kým nepomreli. ...and they lived happily, until they died.
Slovene Pred davnimi časi... A long time ago... ...in živela sta srečno do konca svojih dni. ...and they (both) lived happy until the end of their days.
Nekoč je bil(a)/živel(a)... Once upon a time there was/lived... ...in živeli so srečno do konca svojih dni. ... and they (all) lived happily until the end of their days.
Spanish Érase una vez... There was, once... ...y vivieron felices y comieron perdices. ...and they lived happy and ate partridges.
Había una vez... There was, once... ...y colorín, colorado, este cuento se ha acabado. ...and red, redder, this tale has ended.
Swahili (east African) Hapo zamani za kale... A long time ago Unknown Unknown
Swedish Det var en gång... Once, there was... ...och så levde de lyckliga i alla sina dagar. ...and then they lived happily for all of their days.
En gång för länge sedan... Once, long ago... Snipp snapp snut, så var sagan slut Snip, snap, snute (snout), thus the story ends.
Tagalog Noóng unang panahón... Back in the old time... At sila'y nabuhay ng masaya And they lived happily.
Tamil language முன்னொரு காலத்திலே... (Muḷḷoru kālattilē...) At a time long ago Unknown Unknown
Telugu language అనగనగా ఒక రోజు...
(anaganagā oka rōju)
Once upon a day... Unknown Unknown
Thai กาลครั้งหนึ่งนานมาแล้ว
(gaan kráng nèung naan maa láew)
Once upon the time (long ago)... แล้วทุกคนก็อยู่ด้วยกันอย่างมีความสุขตลอดไป

(láew túk kon gôr yòo dûay gan yàang mee kwaam sùk dtà-lòt bpai)

And they lived happily forever.
Turkish Bir varmış, bir yokmuş. Evvel zaman içinde, kalbur saman içinde, cinler cirit oynar iken eski hamam içinde, pireler berber [iken], develer tellal [iken], ben ninemin beşiğini tıngır mıngır sallar iken, uzak diyarların birinde... 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...*

∗ : This traditional opening phrase by the storyteller is rich with rhyming wordplays, tongue-twisters, as well as comedic and bizarre situational juxtapositions that are meant to draw listeners in, and set the stage for a whimsical, fantastical storyline.

Gökten üç elma düşmüş; biri onların, biri anlatanın, diğeri de dinleyenlerin başına. Onlar ermiş muradına, biz çıkalım kerevetine.

Gökten üç elma düşmüş; birincisi, içindeki çocuğu yaşatmayı bilenlere, ikincisi, davranmadan önce dinleyip düşünenlere, üçüncüsü ise özündeki sevgiyi ve umudu hiç kaybetmeyenlere. Onlar ermiş muradına, biz çıkalım kerevetine.

Lastly, three apples fell from the sky; one for our story's heroes, one for the person who told their tale, and one for those who listened and promise to share. And with that, they* all achieved their hearts' desires. Let us** now step up and settle into their thrones.***

Lastly, three apples fell from the sky; one for those who know to keep their inner child alive, one for those who know to listen and think before they act, and one for those who never lose the love and hope within their soul. And with that, they* all achieved their hearts' desires. Let us** now step up and settle into their thrones.***

∗ : the protagonists of the story
∗∗: the listeners
∗∗∗: a common conclusory storytelling expression meaning "may we all share in their good fortune"

Urdu ایک دفعہ کا ذکر ہے۔۔۔
(Ek dafa ka zikar hai...)
Once upon a time... Unknown Unknown
Vietnamese Ngày xửa ngày xưa... A long, long time ago... ...và họ sống hạnh phúc mãi mãi về sau ...and they live happily ever after
Welsh Amser maith yn ôl... A long time ago... Unknown Unknown

Modern variants[edit]

  • Don McLean's "American Pie" begins with the phrase "A long, long time ago...".
  • All six of the Star Wars films begin with the phrase "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away ...".
  • The musical Into the Woods begins with the Narrator's line, "Once upon a time." The second act commences with his line, "Once upon a time...later..." The musical is a retelling of many famous fairy tales.
  • In the Singaporean comedy series Under One Roof, Moses Lim's character Tan Ah Teck begins his stories with "Long before your time, in the southern province of China ...".
  • In the 2010 Edgar Wright film Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, the opening scene narrates the words "Not so long ago, in the mysterious land of Toronto, Canada."
  • The opening line of the theme song to MST3k is: "In the not-too-distant future ... next Sunday, A.D."
  • Bionicle features the line "In a time, before time...".

See also[edit]


  • Madden, David. 2006. A Pocketful of Prose. Vintage Short Fiction. Volume Two. Boston: Thomson, p. 117
  • Pop M. Die Funktion der Anfangs- und Schlufiformeln im rumaenischen Maerchen // Volksueberlieferung. Hrsg. F. Harkort, K.C. Peeters, R. Wildhaber. Goettingen: Otto Schwartz & Co, 1968. S. 321-326.
  • Рошияну Н. Традиционные формулы сказки. М.: ГРВЛ–Наука, 1974.
  • Герасимова Н.М. Пространственно-временные формулы русской волшебной сказки // Русский фольклор. Т. 18. Славянскне литературы и фольклор: Л.: Наука, 1978. С. 173–180.
  • Герасимова Н.М. Формулы русской волшебной сказки // Советская этнография. 1978. № 5. С. 18–28.
  • Разумова И.А. Стилистическая обрядность русской волшебной сказки. Петрозаводск: Карелия, 1991.

External links[edit]