There is a very common joke in time-travelling stories. One person asks "Where are we?" and the other responds, "When are we?".

What is the earliest instance of this joke being made? I am specifically excluding literal "when are we?"'s without the context of the joke.

  • I don't get it. What is the joke?
    – user14111
    Oct 4 '19 at 7:29
  • @user14111 It's not where are we, it's when are we. Gravity Falls has a great take o it during the time travel episode (don't remember which)
    – TheAsh
    Oct 4 '19 at 10:36
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    @user14111 Sci-fi writers think it's a joke. It's extremely common, and many people here are familiar with it. I don't think it's that funny either, but it is a joke.
    – TheAsh
    Oct 5 '19 at 21:09
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    @user14111 I agree with TheAsh that it's usually played as a joke. The person saying "when are we" is not seriously correcting the grammar of the other, but is making a tongue in cheek remark that they have been displaced through time but not necessarily through space. Feb 19 '20 at 13:59
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    The earliest print instance I could find through a Google Books search is Weet by John Wilson in 1995: "'I think a better question would be: when are we?' replied her brother" Link. That said, since this is 1995, I have my doubts this is truly the first instance. The line does strike me as something likely to arise on TV where the quip is more characteristic. It may be difficult to find as transcripts of pre-1995 shows are spotty. Feb 19 '20 at 14:10

1919: The earliest usage I've come across is in "The Runaway Skyscraper" by Murray Leinster, originally published in Argosy and Railroad Man's Magazine, February 22, 1919, republished in Amazing Stories, June 1926.

Arthur was still pursuing his investigation when a sob from Estelle made him stop and look at her.

"Oh, what are we going to do?" she asked tearfully. "What are we going to do? Where are we?"

"You mean, when are we," Arthur corrected with a grim smile.

So it's being expressed with a gallows humour, but still an element of humour.

Just for fun, I did find that the International Code of Signals from 1909 lists "CQX = When are we?" so it's possible that some captain in the 19th century had to deal with this question too. :)

  • Thank you for finally answering this question! I will award you a bounty.
    – TheAsh
    Nov 27 '20 at 12:36
  • 1
    Wow - how did you find that?! Impressive.
    – tardigrade
    Nov 27 '20 at 14:44
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    @tardigrade I used a time-bounded Google books search for "when are we" restricting the search to 1900-1940; several pages in I got a hit on a magazine compilation that looked promising and spent a bit of time chasing it down - ultimately it was "Arthur corrected with" that got me to the actual quote.
    – DavidW
    Nov 27 '20 at 16:27

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