Improving Your English

Past idioms and history idioms to talk about times gone by

Do you love to reminisce about your memories from the past? Or do you want to talk about historical times using some English history idioms?

If so, here are some handy phrases and idioms for talking about the past with an example sentence for each one. These ‘past idioms’ might be used to:

  • Describe your experiences
  • Remember the past and share memories with others
  • Tell people to forget about the past
  • Talk about how things used to be a long time ago

And if you need a reminder of what an idiom is: it’s a phrase that does not have the literal meaning of the words within it. So, it’s important to become familiar with the definition of each one.

History idioms and talking about the past

Let’s begin with some history idioms. Some of these can be used to talk about historic times whereas others contain the word ‘history’ but actually have nothing to do with the past!

Times gone by

Times gone by refers to an unspecified period of time in the past. You can use it when you don’t know the exact dates of the period in question.

“In times gone by, people used to brush their teeth with sticks!”

A thing of the past

If something is a thing of the past, it doesn’t happen or exist any more.

“Dial-up modems are a thing of the past.”

History in the making

History in the making means that something which is happening now is notable enough that people in the future will remember it.

“The Black Lives Matter movement is history in the making.”
“What we’re seeing now is history in the making.”

This expression can refer to a particular event, movement or period in time.

Go down in history

Similar to the idiom above, to go down in history means to become a part of the history books. It has a broader range of uses, since it can refer to a person, an organization, an object, or really anything at all.

“Vinyl records have gone down in history as one of the most important technological developments for the music industry.”
“Greta Thunberg will go down in history as one of the most influential people of the 21st Century.”
“This day will surely go down in history.”

The rest is history

When telling a story or anecdote, we say the rest is history to mean that the rest of the story is already well known and doesn’t need to be repeated.

“We met while we were working on a cruise ship and, well, the rest is history.”

If you don’t want to over-use idioms, you could also refer to these chronological order transition words.

Bringing up the past: idioms for reminiscing and nostalgia

If you like to think about the years gone by and recall your memories, here are some idioms and expressions to use:

In the good old days

In the good old days refers to a time in the past when you remember life being better in some way.

“In the good old days children didn’t have smartphones and video games; they played outside together.”

Take a trip down memory lane

To take a trip down memory lane is to spend time reminiscing about the past, especially about happy memories.

“My grandmother loves to take a trip down memory lane and tell me about her childhood.”

A blast from the past

A blast from the past is someone or something that reminds you of an earlier time in your life, giving you a sense of nostalgia.

“I bumped into one of my old school friends today – what a blast from the past!”  

Reminisce about your school days with some of these education idioms.

Long time no see

Long time no see simply means that it has been a long time since you last saw someone.

“Hi John, long time no see! How are you doing these days?”

You’d say this directly to them either in writing, on the phone, or when you do finally see them.

Once upon a time

You might have heard the phrase once upon a time used as the opening line of a fairy tale. In everyday speech, it is used to talk about a time long ago, usually by way of reminiscing.

“Once upon a time, it was safe to walk around this town at night.”

Turn back the hands of time

To turn back the hands of time (or just turn back time) means to go back to the past in order to do things differently.

“I wish I could turn back the hands of time and study harder for the exams I failed.”

Of course, we can’t really do this so this idiom is mainly used to express regret.

Put the clock back

With a similar meaning to the idiom above, to put the clock back means to go back in time and change the course of events. Again, this is used to express wishful thinking.

“If only I could put the clock back and change what I said to her.”

Ring a bell

If something rings a bell, it reminds you of something from the past that you can’t quite remember clearly.

“Her name rings a bell but I can’t remember how I know her.”

Idioms about forgetting the past

If you are talking about moving on from past events and forgetting what happened, try one of these idioms:

Water under the bridge

If something bad happened to you in the past (particularly when it was someone’s fault), but enough time has passed that you have forgiven and moved on, you can describe it as water under the bridge.

“Laura used to tease me in high school but that’s water under the bridge now and we get along really well.”

This is just one example of a popular water idiom.

Let bygones be bygones

The phrase let bygones be bygones is said when you want to tell someone to forget about something unpleasant from the past.

“I know he hurt you but that was two years ago. Let bygones be bygones.”

Ship has sailed

When an opportunity has passed by and it’s too late to do anything about it, we say the ship has sailed. It’s best to forget about it and look to the future instead.

“I always dreamed of becoming a professional football player but I’m too old now; that ship has sailed.”

This is an example of a travel-related idiom.

Idioms about the past

Here are some more past idioms which you can use in different circumstances.

All along

The idiom all along means from the beginning or the entire time:

“I knew all along that he would succeed one day.”

Before your time

You might describe something as before your time if it happened or was popular before you were born, or at least while you were too young to remember it.

“The Beatles were a bit before my time.”

Stand the test of time

Something that stands the test of time continues to work well or be well regarded for a long period of time. This could be something physical, like a piece of furniture, or something more abstract like a political policy or a piece of literature.

“I never thought they were a good match but their marriage has stood the test of time.”
“This table was really cheap but it has stood the test of time.”

Donkey’s years

The idiom donkey’s years just refers to a very long period of time – usually in the past rather than the future.

“She has lived in that house for donkey’s years.”

Find some more animal idioms in our separate guide.

Make up for lost time

If you make up for lost time, you work extra hard to compensate for previous delays or you spend a lot of time doing something that you were unable to previously.

“The two friends hadn’t seen each other for years so they are making up for lost time by taking a holiday together.”

Seen better days

Something that has seen better days is past its best and showing signs of wear, decay or use.

“This playground has seen better days; the local authorities should repair or replace it before a child gets injured.”

And that’s all for this list of history idioms and phrases to talk about the past. If you found them useful, you might also like our other articles which cover future idioms, present idioms and idioms about time.

If you can think of any more ‘past idioms’ that should be on this list, just add a comment to let me know!

Do you want to be more confident using English? Why not try Grammarly's free proofreading tool. It checks as you write and helps you correct and improve your spelling and grammar.

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