James Smart's Philadelphia
Of All Things
December 5, 2018
by James Smart
Long time no see, if you’re from Colorado
A news item widely published a week or so ago reported that Colorado State University has asked students to stop using the greeting “long time no see,” because it might offend Asian-Americans. The administrators said they frowned on “noninclusive” language.
That started me pondering several aspects of the situation. For one thing, isn’t noninclusive the same as exclusive?
For another, my earliest impression of that phrase came from my grandfather, who used it regularly, even when the length of time since he had seen his greetee had been short.
The novel syntax of the greeting never made me think of Asian-Americans, as the university feared. When I was a boy in the Thirties and Forties, it sounded to me like the constructions used on the Lone Ranger radio series by Tonto, always described by the announcer as the Ranger’s “faithful Indian friend.”
“The Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English” backs me up on that impression. It says that the greeting “may have been coined by native speakers in imitation of Native American pidgin.” (Linguists define pidgin as any grammatically simplified speech between groups that don’t have a language in common.)
And the Merriam-Webster dictionary calls Tonto the name of one of various subgroups of the Apache people. But “tonto” means “stupid” in Spanish, causing some folks to suspect that the Ranger may have chosen a derogatory name for his faithful friend. So, who knows?
The nick-name problem may work both ways. Tonto always called the Lone Ranger “kemo sabe” (pronounced “sahbay,”) Folks have been arguing about the meaning and spelling of kemo sabe for 80 years or so. It has been pointed out that “quien no sabe” means “who knows?” in Spanish
There is also a claim that the word, in Navajo, means “soggy shrub.” That ridiculous theory is explored in my book, “Soggy Shrub Rides Again,” a collection of some of my allegedly humorous columns, published in 1995 and, I shamelessly point out, still for sale (used) on line.
The question was settled in a 1995 letter from the late Fran Striker, Jr., son of the originator of the Lone Ranger, and also of the Green Hornet, another radio serial masked hero, who was the Lone Ranger’s grand-nephew, which is another story. Writing to me about the nonsensical Soggy Shrub name, Striker said that the nickname kemo sabe came from the dialect of the Potawatomi Indians of his native Northern Michigan, and means “trusty friend.” He should know.
But, back to Colorado State University. Why this outbreak of excessive long time no seeism?
If we consider the doubtful premise that Native Americans today have anything to do with it, there are Navajo and Ute reservations in Colorado, and seven other tribes are represented in the population, not to mention the Anasazi Archeological Center, which features two 12th century Native American sites.
The university is in the city of Fort Collins, named for an 1860s U. S. Army Cavalry fort there. Today, the city’s population is about 165,000, and only about a half of a percent is Native American, not enough to have much influence on the university students’ syntax.
At this point in my investigating and cogitating, I arrived slowly at another question, which may have occurred to some readers. Why do I, or any resident of northwest Philadelphia, care whether or why students in Colorado, or anyone else, have chosen to greet each other with “long time no see”?