So long, a formula at parting (“good-bye”) is still in use, unlike mad hatter and sleeveless errand, the subjects of my recent posts, and people sometimes wonder where it came from. I have little of substance to say about the formula’s origin, but, before I say it, I would like to make the point I have made so many times before. Like mad hatter, so long is an early nineteenth-century idiom. To be sure, it would be interesting to find out how it originated, but it is equally important to understand why it turned up and spread so late and so fast.
How do slang and new words and idioms become common property? The Prime Minister may say something strikingly original, newspapers begin to repeat and discuss the phrase or the word, and very soon (“before you can say Jack Robinson”) “everybody” knows it. The newcomer may be short-lived, but some intruders stay. A popular song or a line from a play often becomes the source of an innovation. 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.
In my blog, I have twice dealt with typical nautical words. The more memorable word of the two is galoot “a clumsy person” or a vague synonym for “nincompoop” (see the post for 23 July 2008: “Never lose heart…”), also early nineteenth-century slang. Such a word may have been coined in the language of the seafaring people in any country, adopted by other sailors, and gained universal popularity. I won’t repeat here what I wrote almost ten years ago (just consult the post if you care). More suggestions on English nautical words borrowed from England’s neighbors can be found in the essays on the verb loom (21 December and 28, 2016).
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. (Never mind the political and other overtones of the moniker; I have had enough trouble with Buckeye and Hoosier: see the posts for 16 July and 3O, 2008.). New Brunswick is another maritime province. It is the closeness of the provinces to the ocean that matters in this context.
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).
Over the years, several etymons of so long have been proposed. In 2004, the periodical English Today brought out a short article on this subject. The author had no access to stray and fugitive notes, referred to above (and my huge bibliography of English etymology appeared only in 2008), but he looked up so long in many dictionaries. Unfortunately, modern dictionary makers have no resources for exploring the origin of every word they include. They either borrow their information from the most reliable sources (the OED, Webster, and their likes) or say: “Origin unknown (uncertain).” Not unexpectedly, I found almost nothing new in the 2004 article.
The early conjectures about the sought-for etymon were as follows. 1) French saluons “(we) welcome” (‘’a similar affectation, now  much in vogue among our gommeux, is the rendering of au revoir ‘olive oil’”). This derivation can be ruled out. Saluons is not a formula used at parting and has no currency outside the French-speaking countries. Gommeux refers to the affectations of upper-class “swells” (called toffs in England), while so long seems to have reached the Standard from the lower strata of society. 2) So long is an English rendering of some Spanish phrase like hasta ahora, hasta luego, etc. (all of them mean approximately “until later, until soon; see you later”). The phrase was allegedly adopted by “the scions of English and Spanish parents…. Sailors who never used the phrase before acquire it on their arrival on the Spanish-American coasts; and, once learnt, the custom is never forgotten.” This derivation sounds fanciful. 3) “Can it be a corruption of Irish slaan = health? Gaelic speakers in Eire-land commonly salute by saying slaan–leat = health with thee, for farewell” (suggested in 1901). 4) Some people traced so long to German so lange. However, so lange never means or meant “farewell”; consequently, this source should be discounted by definition. 5) The oldest and the most common suggestion connects so long with Arabic salaam or its Hebrew cognate shalom. The problem with both Semitic words is that they are formulas of greeting rather than of parting, and, to accommodate Engl. so long, have to be twisted into don’t let it be so long until we meet again.
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 well,” or, in less Byronic words, so long!
Featured image credit: “Liverpool” by timajo. CC0 via Pixabay.