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What is the origin of the phrase 'By the by...'?

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4 Answers 4

up vote 6 down vote accepted

I found the first entries during history, not the exact origin of the expression, unfortunately. They are around the 17th Century.

by the by (earlier by a by, on or upon the by): by a side way, on a side issue; as a matter of secondary or subsidiary importance, incidentally, casually, in passing. Obs. or arch. Also in predicative or complemental use (quasi-adj.):
Off the main track, away from the point at issue, of secondary importance, incidental.

Here are some examples:

  • 1615 W. Hull Mirr. Not intentionally, but accidentally (as we say) vpon the bye.
  • 1627 Hakewill Apol. It led them some other way, thwarting and upon the by, not directly.
  • 1642 Fuller Holy & Prof. St. They had something‥in the favour of Friers, though brought in only by the by.
  • 1678 Butler Hud. All he does upon the By, She is not bound to Justifie.    
  • 1740 J. Clarke Educ. Youth (ed. 3) Let it be done sparingly, and by the bye.

Source: OED

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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:

Originally an adverbial particle of place, in which sense it is retained in place names (Whitby, Grimsby, etc.). Elliptical use for "secondary course" (opposed to main) in Old English.

Incidentally, this implies that by the by is the original spelling, while by the bye is now an accepted variant.

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The OED is not quite clear on the matter, but I don't think there is any connection between "-by" in place names (which is from a Norse root meaning "dwelling") and the adjective/adverb/prefix "by", which comes from an IE route meaning "around". Certainly "-by" in place names is not "an adverbial particle of place" but a full morpheme; though it is conceivable that such a particle could have derived from it. –  Colin Fine Apr 4 '11 at 14:53

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of the English Language (1864) notes that either by or bye (as a noun) could mean "A thing not directly aimed at; something which is a secondary object of regard; an object by the way, and the like; as in on or upon the bye, in passing; indirectly; by implication." The related phrase by the bye, it reports, means "in passing; by way of digression; apropos to the matter at hand." 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:

So they got back to the coach, long before the coachman expected them; and Walter, putting Susan and Mrs Richards inside, took his seat on the box himself that there might be no more mistakes, and deposited them safely in the hall of Mr Dombey's house—where, by the bye, he saw a mighty nosegay lying, which reminded him of the one Captain Cuttle had purchased in his company that morning.

George Eliot used the same spelling of by the bye in her novels, and (by the bye) she and Dickens both used the phrase by and bye occasionally, as well.

The previous Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of the American Language (1847), however, lists only the spelling by the by, commenting, "By the by, signifies, as we proceed or pass, noting something interposed in the progress of a discourse which is distinct from the main subject. The old phrase, 'on the by,' on the passage, is now obsolete."

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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

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