Let bygones be bygones

Origin

‘Let bygones be bygones’ is one of the
small group of phrases the meaning of
which people enquire about more than
they do the origin. On the face of it, the
meaning is obvious and seems to
require no explanation – after all,
bygones can hardly be anything other
than bygones. We don’t have sayings like
‘let greengrocers be greengrocers’, so is
there more to it? As it turns out, there is.

In the 15th century, a bygone was was
simply ‘a thing that has gone by’, that is,
a thing of the past. Shakespeare used it
with that meaning in The Winters Tale,
1611:

This satisfaction, The by-
gone-day proclaym’d, say this
to him.

Meaning

Allow the unpleasant things that have
happened in the past to be forgotten.

As time progressed, ‘bygones’ came to
refer specifically to past events that had
an unpleasant tinge to them; for
example, quarrels or debts. The Scottish
churchman Samuel Rutherford recorded
that usage of the phrase in a letter
during his detention in Aberdeen in
1636. In the letter he regrets the follies
of his youth and acknowledges his debt
to God in showing him the error of his
ways:

“Pray that byegones betwixt
me and my Lord may be
byegones.”

So, there is a little more to the phrase ‘let
bygones be bygones’ than to the more
literal ‘let sleeping dogs lie’ or the old
proverb ‘let all things past, pass’ that was
recorded by John Heywood in his 1562
edition of Proverbs. ‘Let bygones be
bygones’ uses both meanings of the
word ‘bygones’ and means, in extended
form, ‘let the unpleasantness between us
become a thing of the past’.

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