Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Letting foregones be bygones

Letting foregones be bygones

I was reading a column in a chess magazine when I came across the description of a game’s finish as a bygone conclusion. “That’s really weird,” I thought, “It should have said foregone conclusion.

Bygone, it turns out, is a Scottish word according to the OED, and it refers to things in the past. Bygone days are days gone by. As a noun, it can mean past offenses, as in the phrase “Let bygones be bygones” (or as we would say today “Get over it”). A foregone conclusion is one that is apparent in advance—before events, evidence, or actions. 

I searched around a bit and it turns out that bygone conclusion in place of foregone conclusion is not a one-off mistake. A colleague even offered up an example from a novel by Henrietta Keddie, the nineteenth century Scottish novelist who wrote under the pseudonym Sarah Tytler. Her 1859 novel The Nut-Brown Maids has the line “Lee protested vehemently against this bygone conclusion.” A search of Newspapers.com brings up over a hundred examples of the expression from as early as 1831 (in the Caledonian Mercury in Scotland) to present day. 

Bygone conclusion does not seem like an ordinary malapropism, like referring to the pineapple of success rather than pinnacle of success (as Richard Sheridan’s character Mrs Malaprop did in the eighteenth-century play The Rivals). Malapropisms usually create nonsensical meanings and are used for comic effect, often to lampoon a pontificating blowhard. An example is television’s Archie Bunker with his reference to someone sitting in an “ivory shower” and to a “lowly pheasant” serving the king. 

Malapropisms occur in real life as well, either from a mislearned word or from a momentary word retrieval error, as when someone refers to returning books to the strawberry rather than the library or calls the garbage disposal the vacuum cleaner

The phrase bygone conclusion is what is known as an eggcorn rather than a malapropism. An eggcorn is a similar concept, but involves a substitution that makes sense. If you are wondering about the term, eggcorn is an eggcorn of acorn, replacing an opaque word with a more transparent one. One of my favorite eggcorns is the phrase blasé-faire, which nicely captures the essence of laissez-faireFor all intensive purposes, nipping something in the butt, being an escape goat—eggcorns all. 

How is bygone conclusion an eggcorn of foregone conclusion

For some, the meaning “a conclusion determined beforehand” fits equally well (or better) with the “before” sense of bygone than with the semantically opaque foregone. To make sense of foregone conclusion, one needs to reverse engineer its parts as “a conclusion determined beforehand.” Since both foregone and bygone share the part gone, it is a logical enough substitution, much like blasé for laissez. 

The phrase bygone conclusion is stuck in my head now, and I may drop it into conversations now and then to see how people react.  

Feature image: “Ajedrez de Bolsillo” by Armando Olivo Martín del Campo. CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. anthony harms

    Is there a word for words or phrases which have acquired the opposite meaning of what they meant before? I am thinking of words like “indifferent” and “the weak shall go to the wall”

  2. Martin Smith

    While bygone does have a Scottish origin, it is thoroughly naturalised in standard English, having been used by Shakespeare (not in the Scottish play), Carlisle, and Dickens, and has been in general use in phrases such as ‘bygone days’, as well as ‘let bygones be bygones’ for a long time;

Comments are closed.