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Is "Long Time No See" Offensive?

December 6, 2018

Inclusive & Exclusive Language

Inclusive language (i.e., language that includes everyone regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, etc.) is an important subject in the publishing world today. It is also something that everyday speakers are taking into consideration. Many people are careful to make sure terms that exclude or demean certain groups of people (e.g., using mankind instead of humankind or retarded to mean annoying or dumb) are no longer a part of everyday language. How does inclusive language play out in the classroom for English language learners and teachers?

To Teach or Not to Teach?

As language teachers, should we teach students both exclusive and inclusive terms since they're likely to come across both instances? Should we teach them when to avoid using certain words or phrases that are now considered hurtful?

In my opinion, the answer to both of these questions is yes. I believe we should teach our students words and phrases they might hear and see, even if they’re exclusive. But, since English is not their native tongue, we also have a responsibility to warn them when a term or saying may be considered offensive and hurtful by some.

“Long time no see” (also sometimes written with a comma after “time”) is a common expression used when greeting someone we haven’t seen for a while. This past week, a long‑term subscriber wrote in to say she is no longer comfortable teaching this phrase after learning the origin of it. She mentioned that this phrase appears in our Making Small Talk lesson in our Functional English section, and she was wondering if we were aware of its potential to offend people of Asian descent. We began our research immediately.

Origins & Usage

While most of the sources we looked at agree that the expression “long time no see” comes from pidgin American English, many aren't sure whether it originated from a Native American or a Chinese expression originally. For example, articles on the NPR site and Wikipedia discuss the two conflicting origins. Oxford Dictionary, on the other hand, says this expression originated as “a humorous interpretation of a Native American greeting.”

The two main dictionaries I consult on a daily basis list “long time no see” as entries without any usage notes (though Oxford Dictionary discusses it in a blog post—see below).

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary lists “long time no see” as an idiom:



—used as a greeting for someone one has not seen for a long time

Oxford Dictionary lists it as a phrase:



It is a long time since we last met (used as a greeting).

Decisions & Conclusion

So is it offensive? If you do a search for this phrase, you will find many conflicting opinions. For example, Katrina Leibee, in her post in The Rocky Mountain Collegian, says this: “There must be a great deal of projection going on if you find ‘long time no see’ racist to Asians. It’s literally a direct translation of Mandarin syntax (好久不见) and has become a common turn of phrase.” However, Oxford Dictionary lists “long time no see” in their post called 9 Words with Offensive Origins.

While the ESL Library team strives to use inclusive language as often as possible (and we take customer feedback very seriously), after much discussion and research into this phrase we’ve decided not to remove it from the lesson. We feel it is such a common a phrase in many parts of the world that English language learners will undoubtedly come across it in conversation, on TV, in movies, etc., and they will wonder about the ungrammatical syntax of this phrase. By all means, we encourage teachers who feel it is an offensive phrase to teach their students that though they may hear it, they shouldn’t use it themselves.

I myself would likely use it as a teaching point. It would be great way to open a discussion on inclusive language with my students and point out words or phrases that are considered highly offensive with ones that only some people think are exclusive. I would also ask if any of my students think the phrase “long time no see” is offensive and for what reasons. If any of my students felt it was hurtful or degrading, I would then tell my students that we shouldn’t use it in class.

I tend to agree with Stavros Macrakis when he summed up usage of “long time no see” on Quora’s site: “As for the use of the phrase today, I suspect most people are unaware of its origins, and using it completely innocently. Then again, a lot of people are sensitive, and a lot of rumors go around…If enough people start believing that ‘long time no see’ is offensive, it will be best to avoid it.”

It’s really up to the individual teacher how they wish to proceed in terms of teaching and using inclusive and exclusive language in their classrooms. I believe that it’s important to tell students when a term is considered derogatory (like we do in our National Indigenous Peoples Day lesson). I think it’s also worthwhile to point out cases where a term or phrase may become offensive to all one day. To me, “long time no see” is such a case. I would make my students aware that some people might find it offensive, but that it is still common to hear and use in English conversation at this point in time.

What would you do in your classroom?

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Comments (4)

Jay (Guest)

Yes I have used it and I continue to use it to teach every day conversation. Last week I had a 'stand up walk around greet your neighbour' activity in which students greeting each other, 'Long time no see! Guess what?' They loved it. It is so widely entrenched in and identified with our culture and ubiquitous in our language; its origins are not recognized as being Asian, Native American etc. Nobody really even knows for sure where the expression came from. Why turn something innocuous and into a harmful phrase and create racist overtones when there are none? I believe this is a case of political correctness run amok. I do not believe there is any racial subtext to this comment. Just my two cents' worth!

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Thanks so much for sharing your opinion, Jay. You make some excellent points!

Wu Chen-Chou(Guest)

I was thinking the reason that 'long time no see' is originated from Chinese is not only its direct translation from Mandarin, but also '好久不見' is used very often, if not always, to greet people you don't expect to meet by native Chinese speakers. I've rarely heard native English speakers say Hi that way, actually never, probably it's just strange for English speaking people.
I don't know whether native Americans have the similar strange way to start a conversation, and I'm not sure Drannan's conversation with the native American really happened. I was guessing what Drannan wanted to express was native Americans were not native English speakers.
Believe me, 'long time no see' is not offensive. We often make fun of each others by translating Chinese directly into English, like what Google translator does, and we really wish every English speaking people could speak English that way.

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Thanks a lot for your comment! It's great to hear that you don't consider this expression offensive. In Canada, we actually do greet people this way quite a bit! This past weekend I ran into a friend I hadn't seen since last summer, and he said 'long time no see' to me.

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