Saturday, November 7, 2009

Give Immemorial the High Sign

I have a habit of using archaic idioms and, as you can see from the existence of One Step Forward, becoming curious about their origins. The other day I told a co-worker that I would give her “the high sign” when I was ready for her and immediately wondered about that phrase’s history. Naturally, my friends, I thought that you might wonder the same thing.

While I discovered the term in many a dictionary and contentions that it dated back to first few years of the 20th century, I had some difficulty in uncovering the source of it. At first I thought that the high sign may have come from police or military terminology, because I could envision numerous situations in which non-verbal signals would be necessary in either field. Much to my disappointment, I’ve been unable to verify (or disprove) that theory. I’ve not yet given up the search, but I’ve no results to share just yet.

In the meantime, I read an odd phrase in an Arthur C Clarke novel that struck me as something an editor should have required him to change decades before this particular edition had been published. In the story, a robot was recalling its “immemorial memories”. I thought to look up the word immemorial before chiding Mr. Clarke here.

To my surprise, immemorial means something ancient, a thing so old that, in essence, people cannot remember a time when it did not exist. Since time immemorial, to me at least, I’ve assumed that immemorial meant that it came from a time before memory and thus could not be recalled, which meant that I took Mr. Clarke’s phrase to mean “memories so old they could not be remembered”. The subtle distinction makes a memorable difference, here. I thought I’d share these thoughts with you, in case you had a similar reaction to the phrase “immemorial memories”.