we learn something of the possible origin of this expression.
It’s first recorded from the British Rolls of Parliament in 1414 and in 1432 in the modern form. The second example refers to a petition by the inhabitants of the little fishing port of Lymington in Hampshire and says (in modernised spelling): “That through time out of mind there were wont many diverse ships to come in to the said haven”.
It is almost identical in meaning to another phrase from time immemorial. Both may be variant versions of beyond legal memory, which refers to the year 1189, fixed by a statute in 1275 as being the oldest date that English law can take account of.
By the time Edmund Burke was writing, in 1782, the phrase had pretty well become a cliché: “Our constitution is a prescriptive constitution; it is a constitution, whose sole authority is, that it has existed time out of mind”.
In everyday use, it refers to events so far in the past that no-one can actually remember them. This is a concept that can be used to good effect in fiction, as Tolkien does many times. At Rivendell, Frodo is amazed to hear Elrond reminisce about things that to the Hobbits took place in ‘Time out of mind’:
“I was the herald of Gil-galad and marched with his host.” (LOTR Book II, Ch. 2)
This not only serves to demonstrate a major effect of the different life-spans of elves and humans, it is one of Tolkien’s many devices for inserting a sense of historical time into his works. Later we find Eomer challenging Aragorn’s claim to have visited Lorien and come out safely:
“Do we walk in legends or on the green earth in the daylight?’
A man may do both,’ said Aragorn. ‘For not we but those who come after will make the legends of our time. The green earth, say you? That is a mighty matter of legend, though you tread it under the light of day!” (LOTR Book III Ch 2)
If time is a circle or a spiral, rather than an arrow, a river or an emptying hourglass, you can never be sure that the past is safely in the past – it may turn out to be organising your ‘present.’