What is the origin of the phrase 'By the by...'?
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I found the first entries during history, not the exact origin of the expression, unfortunately. They are around the 17th Century.
Here are some examples:
By the by dates from the 1610’s (confirmed by Alenanno’s data), and the key (and originality) to its etymology is in the second by. Etymonline says of by:
Incidentally, this implies that by the by is the original spelling, while by the bye is now an accepted variant.
Merriam-Webster's A Dictionary of the English Language (1864) notes that either by or bye (as a noun) could mean
The related phrase by the bye, it reports, means
Interestingly, this dictionary does not offer by the by as a variant spelling for by the bye.
This definition clarifies Charles Dickens's meaning in the following sentence from Dombey and Son (published between 1846 and 1848):
The previous Merriam-Webster's A Dictionary of the American Language (1847), however, lists only the spelling by the by, commenting,
UPDATE (March 3, 2015): Origin of the phrase
Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2013) offers the following relevant entries for by or bye:
Consistent with those definitions, the Eleventh Collegiate has this for by the by or by the bye:
The earliest Google Books match for “upon the bye” is from Sir Thomas Overbury’s copy of "The Arraignment and Conviction of Sir Walter Raleigh, at the King’s-Bench Bar at Winchester, on the 17th of November 1603,” printed by William Wilson in 1648, and reproduced in A Collection of Scarce and Valuable Tracts, on the Most Interesting and Entertaining Subjects (1751). Overbury's copy actually uses the words “upon the bye” twice:
The occurrence of “upon the bye” in the Overbury account on two occasions emphasizing the lesser culpability of two of the Main Plot conspirators (rather confusingly identified) suggests that this is no mere paraphrase of testimony taken at or before the trial. It seems very possible that something very like that expression may have been said (probably by George Brook) at or prior to Raleigh’s trial in 1603.
Another early instance is from a letter to the Mayor of Southampton” (not later than 1623), in Acts of the Privy Counsel of England (1623) [combined snippets]:
This excerpt is built from multiple snippet views, none of which include a precise date; but the record of the Turgis decision appears just before an entry involving Privy Council approval of a request by three Englishmen to travel abroad for three years, contingent on their not visiting Rome for any reason—language that similar Privy Council decisions from circa 1613–1614 employ.
The variant “upon the bye” appears in Thomas Morton, Of the Institution of the Sacrament of the Blessed Bodie and Blood of Christ (1635) [combined snippets]:
A somewhat later book, John Bramhall, Castigations of Mr. Hobbes (1658) contains three occurrence of “upon the by” in the course of his efforts to demolish the arguments of that notorious philosopher.
Later still is the first Google Books match for “on the by”—from a letter by Anthony Lucas published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London (September 25, 1676):
As for “by the by” and “by the bye” proper, the earliest Google Books matches are much in favor of the former variant, beginning with this example from a review of W. Sympson, Zymologia Chymica* in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London (September 26, 1675):
And the earliest instance of “by the bye” is from William de Britaine, Humane Prudence: Or, The Art by Which a Man May Raise Himself and Fortune to Grandeur, sixth edition (1693; first published in 1680, but much revised in the third edition of 1686):
I would definitely connect it with "by" (originally pronounced "biu") for a "town" with some form of local government or rule making. Hence bylaws, by-road, lay-by. So I have always assumed that "by the by" was a degenerate reference to doing something according to the town law.... or rule
protected by tchrist Mar 1 '15 at 18:56
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