Q From Lynn Peterson: I am interested in the origins of the phrase Once upon a time, which begins fairy tales and folk tales. Upon a time? What does that really mean? Is it a translation from German or other European story tellers? Any history would be of interest.
A The expression has for a very long time indeed been an idiom, one that most of us take in at a gulp without much bothering about the meaning of the individual words. We’ve learned, as you say, that it usually begins a mythical or fabulous story set in some unspecified moment in the past. “Once upon a time,” Charles Dickens wrote in A Christmas Carol, “old Scrooge sat busy in his counting-house.” People often use it in a hand-wavingly imprecise way to indicate a moment in the past or to imply a fairy tale: “Once upon a time we all believed in the magic of the Fed”, the Independent headlined a story on 1 December 2007.
It’s definitely English in origin, though it’s hard to say how old it is. The Oxford English Dictionary has examples going as far back as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in 1385, but it had probably achieved the status of a conventional phrase even then.
What’s bothering you, you imply, is the word upon in the phrase. We still use it in connection with time, though it often sounds formal (“we plan to meet upon another occasion”). It was once the done thing to attach it to any time-related term where we would now use on or at. Lord Dunsany wrote in Time and the Gods in 1905, “Upon an evening of the forgotten years the gods were seated on the hills.”
Another phrase with similar meaning to once upon a time was upon a day, as in Westward Ho! by Charles Kingsley: “And it befell upon a day, that we came into a great wood of ferns.” Another was upon a time — an example is in Miles Coverdale’s translation of the Old Testament book of Job, dated 1535 (I’ve modernised the spelling): “Now upon a time ... the servants of God came and stood before the Lord.”
Once upon a time combines this last form with once, implying that what was to follow was something that happened at some former time.