Long time no see, if you’re from Colorado

The Review - - OPINION - Visit colum­nist Jim Smart’s web­site at jamess­mart­sphiladel­phia.com.

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 ’30s and ’40s, 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 nick­name 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) on­line.

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 grand­nephew, 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.”

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”?

Jim Smart Of All Things

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