So Long, Marianne

I usually listen to music while I write, and sometimes while I’m thinking about what to write (usually I know long beforehand what I want to write, but sometimes I like to sit and let the ideas come. I think the music helps, and sometimes it gives me very specific ideas. Like this evening, for example. I was listening to the album Songs of Leonard Cohen (on vinyl, for extra hipster cred), and specifically the song “So Long, Marianne,” which of course made me think: why do we (well, Americans mainly) use so long to say goodbye?

We’re so used to it that it comes quite naturally, but if you think about it, it doesn’t quite make sense, does it? What exactly are those two words referring to? Presumably a period of time, but what period exactly? Until we next see each other? That would make some kind of sense, as many ways of saying goodbye reference the next time the two people will see each other (Hasta la vista, baby!). But emphasising how long it will be till you see the other person doesn’t really fit the tone of so long, does it? That’s quite a sad, melancholy sentiment, but so long is quite an informal salutation.

When the words don’t seem to make sense whatever way you look at them, it’s usually time to look to other languags as an origin. There are some who believe the word comes from the Irish slán (goodbye), but there’s not much evidence to support that, and the two do sound fairly different. Others think it comes from either the Hebrew shalom or the Arabic salaam, but considering the latter is only used as a greeting and not to also mean goodbye, like shalom, that’s doubtful.What about the German adieu so lange (roughly, farewell, until we meet again)? It sounds a bit like so long, and the meaning’s similar, but again, there’s no solid evidence.

Its first recorded use is in Walt Whitman’s 1860 collection of poems Leaves of Grass, but that sadly, if unsurprisingly, doesn’t include any useful footnotes on its etymology. We’ll probably never really know where it came from, as it’s difficult to figure out the origins of words and phrases retrospectively. If people didn’t record where they came from at the time, or if there was no obvious single source, it’s hard to figure out later.

Of course, there might not really be an origin for the phrase, per se. Part of me suspects that it just came about organically. Maybe at some point one person just started using it because it sounded kind of right as a farewell, and it just stuck, because it sounded good to everyone else too.

Or it comes from German, that’s quite possible too. The thing is, we’ll never know. And that’s OK, so long as (!) we all know what it means.

So long, Marianne…

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