The Origin of so long.

Anatoly Liberman has an OUPBlog post in which he describes various theories about a common phrase and comes to no conclusion, but I think the facts and conjectures he adduces are interesting enough to pass on:

So long is amazing, because it emerged no one knows where and why, and showed unexpected tenacity. A correspondent from New York wrote in 1880: “This is a queer expression [queer meaning “strange, odd”], used in the sense of ‘good-bye’, often heard in the United States, but always by uneducated people. Sailors, on bidding you good day, say ‘So long’. Coloured people in the Midland States employ these words. It is not of recent adaptation, being fully seventy-five years old.”

This note is remarkable from several points of view. First, the writer’s memory proved to be unusually accurate: so long indeed surfaced approximately when he thought it did. As a rule, such observations cannot be trusted, for words and expressions usually turn out to be much older than people think, which is natural: quite some time separates the first occurrence of a word in print from the time it is appropriated by the speaking community, and of course, an indefinitely long “oral” period precedes the date of the word’s appearance in a book or even in a newspaper article. Second, reference to sailors will recur in our records more than once. Finally, the social strata in which the phrase originated is characterized as low, and this observation will also be confirmed by others.[…]

According to another note in my database, so long was frequently heard in Liverpool, a great sea port. According to a statement by a man from Grahamstown, South Africa, so long was also “a common salutation in [that colony] amongst the English and Dutch.” He added: “I remember hearing it amongst the Blue Noses of Nova Scotia and the New Brunswick.” Nova Scotia is a maritime province of Canada, and for the reason unknown to me, Bluenose is the nickname of an inhabitant of that province. […]

The next note at my disposal, written twenty years later, also deserves our close attention: “There seems to be a consensus of opinion… that this is peculiarly a sailor’s phrase…. Mr. Frank Bullen, at the conclusion of the ‘Cruise of the Cachalot’, says, ‘And now, as the sailor says at parting, ‘So long’, and it would appear to be a farewell peculiarly appropriate to the vicissitudes of a sailor’s life…. It is common not only on the coasts of South America (among the English), but also in South Africa among the English and Dutch, and in London.” Frank Thomas Bullen—The Cruise of the Cachalot is his best book—knew what he was talking about. Now, more than a century after the publication of that letter, I am afraid, there is no consensus on the origin of so long. Yet, despite all doubts, the idea that we are dealing with a sailor’s phrase seems right. If this idea is acceptable, so long is, most probably, a garbled version of some foreign word (compare the history of galoot). […]

Thus, we are invited to choose among several improbable and several suspicious hypotheses. If the etymon of so long is Arabic, then in what part of the world and under what circumstances was the English formula coined? Somewhere, seamen may have greeted one another by saying something that sounded to the English ear as so long. If so, the phrase was brought to the bars frequented by sailors, quite possibly in the New World, spread from there, and later made its way to the British Isles. As time went on, it lost its slangy tinge. Not much of a conclusion, but so long as (= British English as long as) we have no solid facts, it is wiser to stay away from irresponsible guesses. “Fare thee well, and if for ever,/ Still for ever fare three [sic] well,” or, in less Byronic words, so long!

Liberman sometimes annoys me, but I am in agreement with his principle about facts and guesses.


  1. If it is indeed a garbled loanword from some foreign port, the final -ng suggests South Asia.

  2. I’ll repeat my comment from there (Anatoly doesn’t read comments that aren’t attached to his very latest post, regrettably):

    Well, I will put forth my own irresponsible guess: that so long is a transformed shortening of the Malay formulas of parting, selamat tinggal au revoir’ (lit. ‘stay safe’, said by the one who is leaving) and selamat jalan ‘bon voyage’ (lit. ‘walk safe’, said by the one who remains behind). Etymologically, selamat < Arabic salāmāt, the plural of salām, and in Malay the literal meaning ‘peace’ is extended to ‘safety, security’. The stress on selamat is penultimate, agreeing with the final stress of so long, and the first vowel is schwa, again agreeing with the first vowel of so long, at least in my pronunciation. Most importantly, there is a plausible pathway: from Malay to Dutch to Afrikaans to English.

  3. This reminds me that my father (1904-91), who often sang snatches of popular songs, would sometimes sing “So long, Oo-long, how long you gonna be gone?” This turns out to be from the first line of the chorus of “So long, Oo-long” (Bert Kalmar / Harry Ruby, 1920), a song that (to put it mildly) does not have a firm grasp on the difference between Chinese and Japanese names. The first person narrator is Ming Toy, her boyfriend is Oo-long (presumably Wu Long, as in the tea), but they are said to live in “Naki Saki” and Oo-long is explicitly said to be a “Japanee”. Unlikely. Nor can I find anyone named Ming Toy except a few pet animals and a porn actress with the improbable nom de guerre of Ming Toy Epstein.

  4. Malay was my first thought as well, but it’s just a guess with absolutely nothing behind it.

  5. The last poem in Whitman’s 1860 edition is titled So long.

  6. marie-lucie says:

    Nova Scotia is a maritime province of Canada, and for the reason unknown to me, Bluenose is the nickname of an inhabitant of that province. […]

    Nova Scotia, which is a peninsula with a long coastline, used to be famous for fishing, fish processing and especially shipbuilding in the days of sail. A high proportion of the male citizens spent a lot of time on the sea, and in the winter human noses are especially vulnerable to the cold, especially when joined with wind, salt spray, rain and snow, so that they take on a purplish-bluish colour. That’s where the proud nickname “Blue noses” come from. A famed locally built sailing ship, fondly remembered as the winner of a transatlantic race, was called the Blue Nose, and that name is still favoured for local restaurants and other businesses.

  7. Previously discussed here:

  8. You can hear the far-from-immortal “So Long Oolong (How Long You Gonna Be Gone?)” here; I’m always fascinated (and slightly appalled) by the way singers of that period rolled their r’s even in, say, unstressed “her.”

  9. What else would a mid-19th century seaman (or his tearful family members) say when departing for months of incommunicado seafaring of a dangerously uncertain outcome AND duration? “But you’ll be gone for so long….”, says the distraught wife or mother to the son she may never see again. In the days of sail, a dockside goodbye salutation was for however long it took to be optimistically reunited. The odds of returning were not always favorable.

    It isn’t mere coincidence that the earliest references to it’s usage occur in seaports where the “vicissitudes of a sailor’s life” were most acute. It’s an unconscious mirroring technique that sailors, in their best hale fellow well met way, used to reassure their loved ones.

  10. Trond Engen says:

    With such a wide currency, all over the British colonies and deep inland on the American plantations, it has to be older, and it has to have a broader base than seaman’s slang. Its attribution to the lower classes just says that it’s fallen out of fashion among the writing class.

    I’d think it’s an abbreviation of a formal salute, or maybe of a conventional response to an au revoir type salute. “So long as it takes!” or “So long as we both live!”

  11. David Marjanović says:

    That’s a good argument, but not a watertight one, as the distribution of OK shows.

  12. In Danish we say farvel så længe = ‘farewell until then’ to close relations when a plan exists to meet again within a week or so. So I never wondered what so long meant in English (and may have mapped it to the Danish expression erroneously because I didn’t think about it) but it certainly never occurred to me that it wasn’t a native English construction.

  13. Now I’m thinking that the best fit, however imperfect, is salaam, folk etymologized along the lines of “so long as…” (as Trond suggests). The next question is whether that was that much input of Arabic into English sailor talk.

  14. Trond Engen says:

    In Norwegian we say ha det så lenge and e.g. takk så lenge “thanks until then” or “… for a while”. It’s what originally made me start my comment, but I lost track when I decided to take on board the “peculiarly appropriate to the vicissitudes of a sailor’s life…” But simple common origin should be considered.

  15. Apropos my earlier statement. A derived contraction of “(Won’t be gone) so long”?

  16. I agree with the folk etymology and the Arabic origin, but I don’t think there’s any good pathway directly from Arabic to English. Malay is another story, and that’s why I like it.

  17. If a Malay origin is correct, the transmission doesn’t need a Dutch/Afrikaans stage: British and American merchant ships completely dominated Western shipping in the SE Asian archipelago from the late 18th century through to the mid-19th (including shipping to/from Java until the 1830s). Any British or American sailor in the region would have had the rudiments of bazaar Malay.

    But a Malay origin is pretty implausible. The stress in Malay/Indonesian is very light, and unless the speaker is being very deliberate or affected, what’s more noticeable is the lengthening of the final syllable rather than the supposed penultimate stress. Selamat is routinely shortened to mat/met: met tinggal, met jalan. By itself selamat in the archipelago means “congratulations, good wishes” – I’d guess that a 19th-century Western sailor, with his bazaar Malay, would have been aware that “goodbye” was something else. So, unless “so long” was a consciously jocular distortion (which is drawing a very long bow), I don’t buy it.

  18. I agree.

  19. I do think it is a consciously jocular distortion, but your other points are compelling. Ah well.

  20. A Scandinavian origin would be consistent with use by sailors, as there was a lot of trade between Britain and Scandinavia.

  21. Liberman’s objection to the salam etymology is wrong: “salam” is frequent in goodbyes as well as hellos. But for the transfer to work, the source needs a back vowel in the second syllable, which rules out most Arabic dialects. Malay would work, but perhaps also an Indian source?

  22. Trond Engen says:

    I won’t claim any more than origin in a shared phraseology. German solong(e) and Dutch zolang is also part of the picture, though I can’t find any use in formulaic greetings.

  23. Searching Google Books confirms the use of salaam in farewell contexts in late 19th century India, at least, e.g. this account from missionaries at Bangalore: “As we take our departure, a deafening shout of salaam greets us from the band of little ones”. In a Bengali pronunciation, I would even expect the first view to be rounded. Technically I should hunt up earlier citations, but so far it looks good to me…

  24. Also, it’s far too late to have any relevance to this etymology, but I couldn’t resist posting the 1935 song title “Make your salaam to Uncle Sam”. Wonder what that was about?

  25. And now I have to mention “Send A Salami To Your Boy In The Army” (Katz’s site, YouTube).

  26. Wonder what that was about?


  27. Sending a salami is referenced in the lyrics to Tom Lehrer’s “So Long, Mom (A Song for World War III)”.

  28. David Marjanović says:

    German so( )lang(e) only ever means “as long as” or “[this is] so long [that]…”.

  29. Trond Engen says:

    I concluded as much for the standard languages, but wouldn’t make a sweeping statement for Continental Germanic in both chronies.

    (And thanks for silently correcting my German. English spellcheck takes you only so long.)

  30. German so lange only ever means “as long as”

    Well, in some usages the Danish phrase does contain exactly that meaning, with elliptical reference to a time period just mentioned: Jeg tager til Jylland en uge. — Hav det godt så længe [du er væk] = “I’m going to Jutland for a week. — Have a nice time while [you’re gone]”. I’m pretty sure that the more generic use started from that.

    I don’t think that neither affirms or negates any theories about the origin of the English phrase, though, I just felt like adding it.

  31. Greg Pandatshang says:

    I guess in the back of my mind I always assumed “so long” was short for “I’ll see you again before so long.”

  32. dainichi says:

    We’re talking about Arabic and Scandinavian influences, but is it completely ruled out that this is just a shortening of something like “take care so long as we’re apart” in some version of English? Just like Lars, the mental map to Danish was so strong that it never occurred to me that it might not be English.

    Greetings are interesting. I had a strong aha moment when I realized that Japanese greetings for parting as different as “sayo:nara”, “saraba” and “ja:ne” all mean “in that case”. I guess “Well, then…” kind of works as a bye in English as well.

  33. On the origin of “Bluenose”, marie-lucie’s idea (it’s cold in Nova Scotia) is certainly plausible. But I am also reminded that “bluenose” is Glasgow Catholic slang for a Protestant, especially the sectarian sort that tends to hang around Glasgow Rangers Football Club. Blue’s seen as the Protestant colour, (along with orange, of course) and Rangers play in blue shirts; green is the Catholic colour.
    And Nova Scotia was settled by Scottish Protestants…

  34. David Marjanović says:

    elliptical reference to a time period just mentioned

    Happens in German, too: solang(e) often means “while”, “in the meantime”.

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