Time immemorial

Time immemorial

Time immemorial is a phrase meaning time extending beyond the reach of memory, record, or tradition. The implication is that the subject referred to is, or can be regarded as, indefinitely ancient. The phrase is one of the few cases in the English Language where the postmodifier is an adjective. Modern historians, anthropologists, and others have often criticized the use of the term as a view of contemporary conditions as without history, i.e. as essential and unchanging in nature.

The term has been formally defined for some purposes.

  • In English law, time immemorial means "a time before legal history, and beyond legal memory." In 1276, this time was fixed by statute as the 3rd September 1189, the date of the coronation of King Richard I (Richard the Lionheart). Proof of unbroken possession or use of any right since that date made it unnecessary to establish the original grant. In 1832, the plan of dating legal memory from a fixed time was abandoned; instead, it was held that rights which had been enjoyed for twenty years (or as against the Crown thirty years) should not be impeached merely by proving that they had not been enjoyed before.
  • The Court of Chivalry is said to have defined the period before 1066 as "time immemorial" for the purposes of heraldry.

The concept of time immemorial may be communicated in various ways and lives on in such rhetorical commonplaces as "time out of mind" and "since the mind of man runneth not to the contrary."

This phrase was used in the world's oldest joke, dating back to 1900 BC by the Sumerians who inhabited what is now southern Iraq. It goes: "Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband's lap."


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