In his Word on the Street column in the Wall Street Journal, linguist Ben Zimmer discusses the curious phrase “the before time”. It’s used these days to refer to everyday life before the coronavirus pandemic, but where did it come from?
Beginning in the Middle English of the late 14th century, “beforetime” or “beforetimes” could be used as an adverb meaning “in the past, formerly.” “Beforetime” shows up frequently in the King James version of the Bible. But, as with many pop culture references, the current use is probably because of Star Trek. As Zimmer says:
We likely owe the “Before Time” label to an episode of the original Star Trek series broadcast in 1966, in which the crew of the Enterprise encounter a planet populated by children who survived a man-made plague. A young girl name Miri (whose name also serves as the title of the episode) explains how the planet’s grown-ups, known as “Grups,” disappeared: “That was when they started to get sick in the Before Time. We hid, then they were gone.”