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Fairy tales and children's stories often end with some variation of "...and they lived happily ever after." I was wondering who first decided to use this wording, or when it was first written down.

The Phrase Finder is an excellent resource for phrase origins, but while someone posed this exact question in 2009, it doesn't seem to have an answer. So what was the first written instance of "happily ever after"?

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Happily Ever After

Although I don't think it is sci-fi or fantasy, this expression appears in the 1702 English translation of the Italian Boccaccio's Il Decamerone, listed as the Oxford English Dictionary's earliest citation for the phrase:

Paganino, hearing the News, married the Widow, and as they were very well acquainted, so they lived very lovingly, and happily, ever after.

This seems to be from Day 2, Story 10.


Ever After(ward)

Something else worth mentioning is that the expression "ever after(ward)" has been used in English for a long time. The first instance I can find (via both the OED and the Middle English Dictionary) is from c1300, right in the middle—not the end—of The early South-English legendary; or, Lives of saints (also not actually sci-fi or fantasy):

þat maide was wel a-paid euere-aftur-ward
"that maid was well paid ever afterward"

Lived Ever After

Using the paywalled site Early English Books Online, I was able to find some examples of "lived ever after". Here's the earliest hit, from the middle of Here begynneth the treatys of Nycodemus gospell (1507; not sci-fi/fantasy):

And so they leuyd euer after in our lordys seruyce.

Notably, I was able to find a story that has it at the end. The story appears to be fiction, just not science fiction (or fantasy). It's The strange fortunes of two excellent princes in their liues and loues, to their equall ladies in all titles of true honour (1600):

... that the houses vnited in mariage, liued euer after in much loue, & the souldiers al commanded to laie by their Armes, after much feasting, and manie triumphes returned home with no little ioie.

FINIS.

Happy Ever After

I was also able to find some instances of "happy ever after" (also via EEBO), but they're always in the middle of the text (and it's all religious stuff, not sci-fi/fantasy). Here's A catholike exposition vpon the Reuelation of Sainct Iohn:

Moreouer Iohn had commended faith sufficiently when he sayde, that the dead whiche dye in the Lord are happie euer after.

Here's Eight sermons preached on several occasions by Nathanael Whaley (1675):

But suppose, it were possible for us to be discharged from this Obligation to a Life of Virtue and Religion, or that we might safely break it without drawing the displeasure of God upon us, yet since Heaven is Promised us upon this condition, that we live soberly, Righteously and Godly, for the little time we have to spend in this World, how is it Possible that we should refuse it, when we have the prospect of so glorious a Reward, and may be sure to be completely Happy ever after?

Once Upon a Time?

If you're curious about the origin of the other fairytale phrase, see my answer to What is the origin of the “once upon a time” idiom as the way to begin a fairy tale?

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I suspect that the Grimm Brothers are the source. Their 1812 story of Rapunzel ends like this (translated from German)

He led her into his kingdom, where he was received with joy, and for a long time they lived happily and satisfied.

One of the earliest instances I can find of the actual phrase "Happily Ever After" was in a short story entitled that, from the 1920 book, Limbo, although that isn't a fairy tale.

  • I agree that the English phrase "they lived happily ever after" likely began as a translation from another language. – GEdgar Feb 5 at 19:49
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While it's not fantasy or science fiction, the earliest citation of that exact formula I've found is 1708 in Pierre Bayle's Miscellaneous Reflections, Occasion'd by the Comet which Appear'd in December 1680: Chiefly Tending to Explode Popular Superstitions. Written to a Doctor of the Sorbon:

'Twas confidently said, he who first laid hands on the Goddesses Image, was suddenly struck blind, and seiz'd with a Palsy in every Nerve. Augustus desiring to be satisfy'd of the Fact, was inform'd by an old Officer who fram'd the Story, not only that the Fellow was perfectly in good health, but had liv'd happily ever after on the Spoil of that Temple.

It may be worth noting that this is an English translation of a French work.

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I found some earlier less exact matches than some others here, and while not technically answering the question regarding the exact phrase "happily ever after", the question may not actually be more definitively answerable than pointing at the earliest known attestation (already posted), so I am posting these, as they may give clues as to how the phrase settled to the "happily ever after" form.

This one is pretty close, coming after peace was restored to a household through servants being whipped for telling rumors concerning the lady of the house:

...they lived ever after with a most memorable sweetnesse of mutuall courtesies.

-- From Saint Augustines Confessions Translated: ᴀɴᴅ With some Marginall Notes illustrated by William Wats (1650 -- Google Books' "About this book" page says 1550, but the title page says "M.DC.L."), p. 283.

Perhaps arguing against the suggestion in some comments above that the exact "happily ever after" form may have began due to translation of works in other languages, is the fact that both the phrases "lived happily" and "ever after" existed before in English, and similar full statements with the same overall meaning had precedent in original English works even before it got jelled into the familliar phrase:

And this agreement thus made, and in a Parliament at Winchester confirmed, Duke Henry ever after accounted King Stephen no less then a Father; and King Stephen: Duke Henry no less then a Son, and well he might, if it be true which some write, that the Emperess, when a Battel was to be fought between King Stephen and her Son, went privily to him, asking him how he could finde in his heart to fight against him that was his own Son? Could he forget the familiarity he had with her in her Widow-hood! But this was no matter for the Writers of that time to deliver. It touched too near the Interest of Princes then in being, and Princes must not be touched while they live; nor when they are dead neither, with uncertainties, as this could be no other: But howsoever it was, certain it is, that after this agreement between King Stephen, and Duke Henry, they continued in mutual love and concord, as long after as they lived.

-- From A Chronicle of the Kings of England, from the Time of the Romans Government Unto the Death of King James (1670), p. 49. (Italicization original, bold added.)

...for they loved well their Lords the Romans, under whose government they lived happily.

-- From *The Historie of the World: In Five Bookes" by Walter Raleigh (1614), p. 396.

To which I yeelded for quietnesse and unity sake, and ever after lived peaceably, contentedly, and friendly together, the Captain denying me nothing; yea, tendring me more courtesie then I desired, or would accept of.

From A True Declaration of the intollerable wrongs done to Richard Boothby, Merchant of India, by two lewd servants to the honorable East India Company, Richard Wylde, and George Page. As also a remonstrance of the partiall, ingratefull and unjust proceeds of the India Court at home, against the said Richard Boothby, etc (1644), p. 21

And at the end of the story *The Tale of a Traveller:

...married they were, and in a short time after he carried her to his House, there made her Mistress of his Estate; and whilst he governed his outward Affairs, she governed the Family at home, where they lived plentifully, pleasantly, and peaceably; not extravagantly, vain-gloriously, and luxuriously; they lived neat and cleanly, they loved passionately, thrived moderately; and happily they lived, and piously dyed.

-- From Natures Pictures drawn by Fancies Pencil to the Life (1671) p. 544.

That's not the only tale in that book have an ending of that sort; on p. 514, at the end of the tale Assaulted and Pursued Chastity, which takes place in mythical kingdoms:

and the two Kingdoms lived in Peace and Tranquillity during the life of the King and Queen; and, for ought I can hear, do so to this day.

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    Augustine's Confessions were written in the fourth century... If you accept the translation as faithful, it is far and away the oldest. – Chris B. Behrens Feb 6 at 3:26
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Another possible answer for the source of the phrase is One Thousand and One Nights, which used a phrase indicating that the couple lived "happily ever after" albeit in a more morbid fashion, "They lived happily until there came to them the One who Destroys all Happiness," i.e. that they were happy until their eventual deaths. While the first English translation didn't arrive until the 1800s, the first French translation, of a 14th century manuscript, was released between 1707 and 1714 in twelve volumes.

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