Once upon a time

Once upon a time
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 seems to have become a widely accepted convention for opening oral narratives by around 1600. These stories 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 is particularly prevalent in fairy tales for younger children, where it is almost always the opening line of a tale. It was commonly used in the original translations of the stories of Charles Perrault as a translation for the French il était une fois, and of Hans Christian Andersen as a translation for the Danish "der var engang", and the Brothers Grimm as a translation for the German es war einmal (literally "it was once").

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

Other languages

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 jetuan të lumtur 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
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 Կար-չկար... 'There was, there was not...' Unknown Unknown
Azeri Biri var idi, biri yox idi... 'There was, (and) there was not...' Unknown Unknown
Bengali Onek din aagekar kotha... 'It's story of long time ago' 'aamaar kothati furolo; Note gaachhti murolo' 'And they lived happy forever ; My story ends here'
Bulgarian Имало едно време... 'There was, once upon a time...' ...и три дни яли, пили и се веселили '...and three days they ate, drunk and had fun.'
Catalan Hi havia/això era una vegada 'There was a time...' I vet aqui un gos, vet aqui un gat, aquest conte s'ha acabat and with a dog and a cat, the 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" "lit. A very very long time ago..." T:從此,他們過著幸福快樂的日子 '... and they lived a happy life'
Croatian Jednom davno... 'Once, a long time ago...' ... i živjeli su dugo i sretno. '...and they lived long and happily.'
Czech Bylo nebylo,... 'There was, there was not...' ... a žili šťastně až do smrti. '...and they lived happily until they died.'
... 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.'
Ekoti (Mozambique, Bantu) Rakú z'éepo waarí-vó oswááipu nwúlw'eéne saána 'Once upon the time, there was a truly great friendship...' Unknown Unknown
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 a long and happy life'.
Esperanto Iam estis... 'Once there was' Unknown Unknown
Euskara 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)'.
Finnish Olipa kerran... 'Once there was...' Sen pituinen se. 'That's the length of it.'
French Il était une fois 'There was one time/There was once... ' ... ils vécurent heureux et eurent beaucoup d'enfants '... they lived happily and had many children'.
German Es war ein Mal... 'Once there was...' ...und sie lebten glücklich und zufrieden bis ans Ende ihrer Tage. '...and they lived happily and contentedly until the end of their days.'
...und wenn sie nicht gestorben sind, dann leben sie noch heute. '...and if they haven't died yet, they are still living today.'
Georgian "Iko da ara iko ra, iko..." 'There was, and there was not, there was...' Unknown Unknown
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 Μια φορά κι έναν καιρό... 'Once, in another time...' ...και ζήσανε αυτοί καλά και εμείς καλύτερα. 'And they lived well, and we lived better.'
Greek (Ancient) "Ἦν γάρ ποτε..." "Once there was..." Unknown
Gujarati ઘણાં વર્ષો પહેલાંની વાત છે. 'This is an old story.' Unknown Unknown
એક જમાનામાં.. 'In one era, ..' Unknown Unknown
વર્ષો પહેલાં 'A long back' Unknown Unknown
Hebrew Hayo hayah pa'am... (הָיֹה הָיָה פעם) 'Once there was...' Ve'Hem Haiu Be'Osher Va'O'sher Ad Etzem Ha'Yom Ha'Ze (והם חיו באושר ועושר עד עצם היום הזה) 'And they lived in happiness and luxury to this very day.'
Hindi किसी ज़माने में 'In one era, ...' Unknown Unknown
बहुत पुरानी बात है 'It's an old story, ...' Unknown Unknown
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! or Boldogan éltek, amíg meg nem haltak. 'This is the end; run away with it.' or 'They lived happily until they died.'
Icelandic Einu sinni var… 'Once there was…' "Og þau lifðu hamingjusöm til æviloka" or "Köttur úti í mýri, setti upp á sér stýri, úti er ævintýri" "And the lived happy for the rest of their lives" or "Cat out in the swamp, lifted its tail, the adventure finished is"
Unknown Unknown Unknown
Indonesian Dahulu kala... 'Long time ago...' Unknown Unknown
Iraqw (Tanzania, Kenya, Cushitic) tokaro-yâ 'once upon a time' Unknown Unknown
(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... 'Once there was...' 'E vissero felici e contenti' And they lived happy and content.
Japanese Mukashi mukashi (昔昔, 昔々, むかしむかし) 'Long ago, long ago ...' Medetashi medetashi (めでたしめでたし) 'So blissful'
Korean Yet-nal Yet-jeok-e... (옛날 옛적에...) 'A long, long time ago...' Unknown Unknown
Kannada Ondanondu kaaladalli... 'Once, in a long past age,...' Unknown Unknown
Kyrgyz ilgeri-ilgeri... (илгери-илгери..) 'A long, long time ago...' Unknown Unknown
Latin Olim... 'At that time' 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...' Unknown Unknown
Macedonia Си беше еднаш... '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
Maragoli Kenyan language related to other Luhya languages. Mmadikhu ga khaare 'In olden days' Unknown Unknown
Maltese Mela darba... Once... Unknown Unknown
Moroccan Arabic Hajitek ma jitek (حجيتك ما جيتك) 'I've told you what's coming' Unknown Unknown
Nepali language eka desh ma (एका देशमा) 'Once in a country...' Unknown Unknown
Norwegian Det var en gang... 'There was, once...' Og så levde dei lukkelege alle sine dagar 'And then they lived happily for the remainder of their days'
Og er dei ikkje døde, så lever dei enno. 'And if they're not dead, they still live'
Snip, snap, snute, så er eventyret ute 'Snip, snap, snute (snout) - then this adventure is finished.'
Persian "روزی روزگاری" (Ruzi, Ruzegaari) 'One day, One time' Unknown Unknown
"یکی بود، یکی نبود، غیر از خدا هیچ کس 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' Unknown Unknown
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... 'Long, long time ago...' ... i żyli długo i szczęśliwie. '...and they lived long and happily.'
Portuguese Era uma vez... 'There was, once...' "... e viveram felizes para sempre" '... and they lived happily forever'
Romanian A fost odată, ca niciodată... 'There once was, (as never before)...' ...şi au trăit fericiţi până la adânci bătrâneţi. '...and they lived happily ever after.'
Russian Давным-давно 'Long, long time ago...' И жили они долго и счастливо. '...and they lived long and happily.'
Sanskrit Pūrākāle (पुराकाले) 'In the ancient time...' Unknown Unknown
Kadājit (कदाचित्) 'Once upon the time'/'At any time' Unknown Unknown
Scots (missing original) "In the days of auld lang syne" Unknown Unknown
Serbian 'Једном давно.../Некада давно... 'Once, a long time ago...' ...и живеше сретно/срећно до краја живота. '...and they lived happily for the rest of their lives.'
Serbian Била једном једна...(feminine)/Био једном један...(masculine)/Било једном једно...(neuter) 'There once was one...' ...и живеше дуго и сретно/срећно. '...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 (dual) srečno, do konca svojih dni. '... and they (both) lived happy until the end of their days.'
Nekoč (davno) ... 'Once...' ... in živeli so (plural) srečno, do konca svojih dni. '... and they (all) lived happily until the end of their days.'
Spanish Érase/Había una vez... 'There was, once...' ... y vivieron felices /y comieron perdices. '...and they lived happy forever/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... 'There was, once...' ... 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...' Unknown Unknown
Tagalog Noong unang panahon... 'During the old days (a long time ago)...' Unknown Unknown
Tamil language முன்னொரு காலத்திலே... 'At a time long ago' Unknown Unknown
Telugu language అనగనగా ఒక రోజు... 'Once upon a day..' Unknown Unknown
Thai กาลครั้งหนึ่งนานมาแล้ว 'Once upon the time (long ago)...' แล้วทุกคนก็อยู่ด้วยกันอย่างมีความสุขตลอดไป 'and they lived happily forever'
Turkish Bir varmış, bir yokmuş. Evvel zaman içinde, kalbur saman içinde... 'Once there was, once there wasn't. In the old times, the sieve in a stack of hay...' *[1] Onlar ermiş muradına, biz çıkalım kerevetine. "They have reached their goal, let's settle"
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...' Unknown Unknown
Welsh Amser maith yn ôl... 'A long time ago...' Unknown Unknown

Modern variants

  • 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...'
  • 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.'


  • 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.

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