Where does this meme come from (as in a trip down memory lane) ?

Is it from a book ?

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Christine Ammer, The Facts on File Dictionary of Clichés, second edition (2006) has this entry for the phrase "down memory lane":

down memory lane Looking back on the past. Often put in a nostalgic way, this term may have originated as the title of a popular song of 1924, "Memory Lane," words by Bud de Sylva, and music by Larry Spier and Con Conrad. It was revived in the film In Society (1944), starring [Bud] Abbott and [Lou] Costello. That is where former movie actor President Ronald Reagan may have picked it up; he then used it in his 1984 speech accepting the Republican nomination, "Well, let's take them [his opponents] on a little stroll down memory lane."

Ammer's chronology notwithstanding, "memory lane" was a familiar turn of phrase back in 1972, when Loudon Wainright III turned it on itself in his 1972 song "Old Friend," from his third album:

It's been so long, things are so different.

Memory lane's a one-way street.

Although Ammer may be correct that "memory lane" owes its first surge of popularity to a song from 1924, the phrase was certainly used before that time. A Google Books search finds this instance from B. M. Balch, "Memory Lane," in Hamilton Literary Magazine (December 1894):

On the shore of vast gray sea lies an old town; so old that no records of its founding have ever been discovered, though its archives cover centuries of existence. Every wall is crumbling away. Every gable is lichen-grown and covered with moss. In the whole great city there is nothing new. Thro the centre of the town a quaint old street, paved with square blocks of various hues from a somber gray to a bright crimson, runs down to the sea. This is Memory Lane—lonely and drear to some, pleasant and gay to others.

Older still is this instance of "memory's lane," from William Bowen, "That Frozen Pipe," in Chained Lightning, a Book of Fun (1883):

When you have come as near as may be to the frozen spot, hold the flat-iron on the pipe and settle down for ten minutes of meditation. You won't have traveled down memory's lane over half a mile before something will happen. The pipe will burst exactly on a line with your eyes, and you will have cause to wonder all the rest of your life how a gallon of water could have collected at that one point for your benefit.

A search of the Library of Congress's Chronicling America database of U.S. newspapers finds the same "That Frozen Pipe" story in the [Rayville, Louisiana] Richland Beacon (April 23, 1881), which gives its source as the Detroit Free Press (undated). I couldn't find the Detroit Free Press version of the story in the Library of Congress database.

Also of possible interest, another song called "Memory Lane"—this one by R.H. Elkin and A. L. Liebmann—was catalogued in London on January 19, 1903.


Almost certainly unrelated, but an amusing coincidence, is this item from the [Washington, D.C.] Evening Star (January 6, 1879):

A story of a wonderful memory comes from Sydney, Australia. A prisoner set up in his defense an alibi, claiming that, at the time of the robbery, he was at home listening to the recital of a novel, "The Old Baron," by a man named Lane, who had committed it, with other works, to memory. Lane's recitation, he said, took two hours and a half. The Attorney General holding this to be incredible, Lane began: ... After the witness had recited several pages, the Attorney General told him to stop, as he was satisfied. But the defense insisted that, as the veracity of the witness had been questioned, he should be allowed to go on. Finally a compromise was effected, Lane gave a chapter from the middle of the story and its conclusion, and the accused was found not guilty.

The story reappeared in newspapers from Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Washington Territory over the next five months. It also appeared, in a slightly more detailed form, in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper (January 18, 1879), with such additional details as the name of the author of The Old Baron (Horace Walpole) and the fact that the episode occurred in January 1847.

Was "memory lane" influenced by the stir made in 1879 by the account of the remarkable memory of Mr. Lane of Sydney, Australia? I don't think so, but it makes a good apocryphal story.

  • 1
    I think it is worth showing how popular the expression has become in the last decades: books.google.com/ngrams/… – user66974 Jan 25 '15 at 11:17
  • Very interesting insights, Sven and @Josh61. – Archimedix Jan 25 '15 at 11:20
  • That's a sharp observation, Josh61. I'm surprised at how late "memory lane" took off in frequency. I might add that the extent to which "memory lane" appears as part of the longer phrase "down memory lane" (as shown here) also surprises me. – Sven Yargs Jan 25 '15 at 11:26
  • OED lists memory lane and its earliest citation is the 1903 song. It's a bit odd that it doesn't include "memory's lane", but that 1894 ante-dating may be of interest to them. – Andrew Leach Jan 25 '15 at 12:17
  • 1
    @SvenYargs I believe public.oed.com/the-oed-today/contribute-to-the-oed should be available to those without an OED subscription. – Andrew Leach Jan 25 '15 at 19:28

Merriam-Webster claims it was first used in 1903. There are mentions here:

memory lane,

that go back almost that far. Many of them render it as "memory's lane". There is a book of that era, "Queen Mary of Memory Lane", which may have helped to popularize the phrase.

  • It's a pity that Merriam-Webster mentions known first use but does not elaborate on the date further. – Archimedix Jan 25 '15 at 11:18
  • OED might do better. Or post the question on ADS-L (American Dialect Society) Ask if anyone can "antedate" it. americandialect.org/publications/… – Brian Hitchcock Jan 25 '15 at 12:16

Your Answer

 
discard

By clicking "Post Your Answer", you acknowledge that you have read our updated terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy, and that your continued use of the website is subject to these policies.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.