The Grammarphobia Blog

Same old, same old

Q: As a young airman in Japan during the 1950s, I often heard locals (and GIs) use the expression samo, samo to mean the same. Did this usage give us the expression “same old, same old”?

A: The use of samo, samo in Asia apparently predates the appearance of American GIs by quite a few years.

An English buccaneer noticed this use of the phrase among the people of Mindanao in the 1600s. Back then in the Philippines, it didn’t exactly mean “same old, same old,” but it did refer to sameness.

We came across this information in an 1862 reference book, A Dictionary of English Etymology, by Hensleigh Wedgwood, with notes by George P. Marsh.

In a bracketed note­­, Marsh cites this passage from A New Voyage Round the World (1703), by the much-traveled adventurer and explorer William Dampier:

“They would always be praising the English, as declaring that the English and Mindanaians were all one. This they exprest by putting their two fore-fingers close together, and saying that the English and Mindanaians were samo, samo, that is, all one.”

Marsh, in his note, wonders whether samo in that quotation was “a native word, or had the people of Mindanao borrowed it from earlier English visitors?”

(Dampier, who lived from 1652 to 1715, really should be the subject of a splashy Hollywood spectacle, but that’s another story.)   

So did those 17th-century islanders have their own word samo, or did they adapt “same” from English explorers? We’d guess that the usage was influenced by earlier explorers.

In checking a few modern Filipino dictionaries, we find the verb sámò (to cry or plead) and the noun samò (an entreaty), but no indication that either word could refer to sameness.

In a 2001 posting to the Linguist List, Douglas G. Wilson says samo doesn’t appear in Japanese dictionaries either, but samo, samo apparently exists as a dialectal variant of a Malay term meaning same or together.

Perhaps this dialectal variant is related to the samo, samo that Dampier heard in the Philippines on his round the world trip. But we suspect that the Malay term may have been influenced by English-speaking visitors.

Our word “same” entered English in about 1200, probably influenced  by the Old English swa as well as similar words in Scandinavian languages.

It has cousins in Old Saxon, Old High German, Gothic, Old Irish, Latin, Greek, Lithuanian, Old Slavic, Russian, Sanskrit, and the prehistoric language families proto-Germanic (reconstructed as samaz) and Indo-European (reconstructed as somos).

But back to “same old, same old,” an expression suggesting that nothing has changed in one’s life.

The usage first showed up in the 1970s in American black English, according to Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang.

Did it originate in the phrase samo, samo that you heard while stationed in Japan in the 1950s?

Maybe it did … and maybe it didn’t. Here’s the story.

In “Bamboo English,” a 1955 article in the journal American Speech, Arthur M. Z. Norman suggests that samo, samo originated in the Japanese tendency to use reduplication when speaking pidgin English. (In linguistics, reduplication is the repetition of the root of a word or part of it.)

“The changey-changey samey-samey phenomenon heard among the Japanese,” Norman writes, “is responsible for samo-samo ‘the same’ in American Slang.”

But Wilson, in another 2001 posting to the Linguist List, raises the possibility that samo, samo may have been coined not by the Japanese but by US soldiers – as baby talk the GIs used in an attempt to communicate.

“It is possible that ‘samo’ or even ‘samo-samo’ was simply a nonsense augmentation of ‘same’ by American servicemen,” he says.

Channeling a ’50s GI, Wilson adds: “That’s how we used to say ‘same’ in Tijuana, maybe it’ll work here too,” or “I think these people will understand English if you repeat each word slowly, with ‘o’ or ‘a’ on the end; they understood me fine that way in Manila.”

In answer to your question, the 1950s phrase samo, samo, meaning the same, may have evolved into the 1970s expression “same old, same old,” meaning nothing’s changed, but this isn’t certain.

Although some word sleuths see a connection between the two expressions, Cassell’s describes “same old, same old” as merely a slang version of the standard English “same old thing.”

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