We take the phrase “once upon a time” for granted, but if you think about it, it’s quite oddball English. Upon a time—? That’s just a strange construction. It would be pleasant to know its history: when, more or less, does it get up on its legs? Around when does it become standard procedure? My researches into this question, however, have yielded nothing conclusive.
Forget “upon a time.” Look at the “once.” That part really is standard from the beginning, and not only in English. Just this past weekend, I paged through fifteen volumes of the “Pantheon Folktale Library,” and I’m here to tell you: The word once is in the first sentence of almost every single folktale every recorded, from China to Peru. There is some law of physics involved.
Folktales get right down to business, no fooling around. Once there was an old king who had two sons. Once there was a poor lace merchant who decided to make a trip. And if it doesn’t say “once,” it will say “a long time ago.” A long time ago, the fox and the hen were good friends. A long time ago, there was a man who had a shaving brush for a nose and who had two daughters, etc.
Why should it always be a long time ago. That’s easy. If you said “When I was a girl, there was an old man in this village…” you’d be opening yourself up for interruptions. Where is that old man now. Where are his two sons. But if the story took place a long, long time ago, or simply in undefined and undefinable history (“once”), interruptions will be—fewer.
I want to mention that not one story in Grimms’ Fairytales actually begins “Once upon a time.” German doesn’t have that expression. They just say “once.” (The term is einmal. Es war einmal ein Mann und eine Frau…). Italian, pretty much same thing. C’era una volta… (literally, “One time, there was…”). All this counts as formulaic.
Carlo Collodi plays with this in the famous beginning of Pinocchio: