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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(adj.) of or belonging to an earlier time

portrait of english king richard i

We’ve looked at the history of the expression time immemorial here on HH before: what we now used to mean ‘time beyond memory’ began life as a legal term in mediaeval England referring to anything that happened before the coronation of Richard I on 6 July 1189.

Immemorial is an example of a so-called ‘fossilized’ word: a word that survives in a language only in one stock phrase or expression. The ‘shrift’ of short shrift is another example, as is the ‘lurch’ of left in the lurch.

It’s fair to say that words like these are often hiding in plain sight: the phrases they appear in are so familiar that the obscurity of the word or words they contain slips by unnoticed. So you might not know what a caboodle is (it’s actually an alteration of boedel, an Old Dutch word for a person’s belongings), but you’ll know precisely what someone means when they talk about the whole kit and caboodle. You might not know that a pale is a wooden picket fence, but if someone or something is beyond the pale you’ll know it’s outside the accepted standards. And if we agree to let bygones be bygones, we let go of earlier contentious issues or disagreements. But what exactly is a bygone?

Back in the fifteenth century, bygone was an adjective rather than a noun, essentially meaning ‘former’, ‘elapsed’, or ‘that has gone by’; Shakespeare spoke of “the by-gone-day” in A Winter’s Tale in 1611.

From there, the word came to describe anything dead or departed, and later obsolete or anachronistic; Dickens spoke of “the byegone old Assembly Rooms” in a letter dated 1869.

But for bygones to be plural, it has to be a noun. So when did that happen? Well, based on the original meaning of the word, back in the mid sixteenth century bygone came to be used not only to describe something that has gone by or expired, but as a placeholder name for the aged thing itself. Soon everything from overdue payments and financial arrears to criminals’ previous convictions were being labelled bygones, before what we might call the modern meaning of the word—that is, any past incident or event—began to emerge in the mid-1600s.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest record of the phrase bygones be bygones dates from 1648.

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