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There is a common, seemingly incorrect usage of the word by in certain communities in the U.S., mainly Jewish communities in the New York area. For example,

I was by my friend over the weekend.

By is used as a preposition instead of at. It seems to be of Yiddish influence. Though nearby is correct, by alone doesn't seem to be.

Is this true? Can someone account for the difference between by and nearby?

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I've heard this, but I don't know exactly what it means. I am pretty sure that it doesn't mean nearby. My rather uncertain impression is that it either means "I was at my friend's place", or "I was with my friend." If you and your friend went together to a cottage at a lake, would you be "by your friend"? (If you went to adjacent cottages, but didn't realize it, you would definitely be "nearby your friend" but not "by your friend"). –  Peter Shor Sep 25 '11 at 11:50
    
Thanks Peter. To clarify, in the example sentence above it means either "I was staying at my friend's house," or "I was with my friend," as you commented. It does not mean "nearby" as onomatomaniak posited. You can even say "I was staying by my friend for the weekend" and retain the same meaning, and eliminate the possibility that it connotes proximity - you weren't near his home, you were in it. –  Mark Sep 25 '11 at 11:54
    
I don't think there's any reason to see a Yiddish influence. The "by" in African-American spiritual Kumbaya (come by here) seems the same usage to me. And I think the Welsh in particular are prone to say things like "They were by" to mean "They visited/called in". –  FumbleFingers Sep 25 '11 at 13:27
    
Well, judging by the people who use this type of speech in American English and their general Yiddish influences - apparent in their Yiddishisms, syntax and interspersing of Yiddish words, I think it's safe to say that the Yiddish בייַ ("by"), meaning "at" is probably the source. –  Mark Sep 25 '11 at 13:35
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‘By’ meaning ‘at the house of’ is obsolete in Standard English. If there’s a Yiddish connection, then the usage perhaps derives from German ‘bei’, which can have that meaning. –  Barrie England Sep 25 '11 at 14:25

3 Answers 3

up vote 3 down vote accepted

In Yiddish Idioms in American English, Lillian Mermin Feinsilver says that one Yiddish idiom is this use of with instead of by. She presents as examples the phrases "it's all right by me" and "this is fine by Mr. Fiedler."

In a footnote, she discusses a related idiom:

The substitution of by for at, as in "I was by his house," noted by the Hermans in their manual (p. 416), appears in Wentworth and Flexner, op. cit., p. 83, with a quotation from Nelson Algren: "I'll buy you a drink by Antek." But this would seem to be still rather parochial.

The works referenced in the footnote are Dictionary of American Slang (1960) by Harold Wentworth and Stuart B. Flexner; and Manual of Foreign Dialects for Radio, Stage and Screen (1958) by Lewis Herman and Marguerite Shalett Herman.

In Supplement II to The American Language (1948), H. L. Mencken (in words identical to Feinsilver's) also lists this a feature of American Yiddish:

the substitution of by for at, as in "I was by his house."

It seems that by is a replacement for with or at rather than nearby.

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Though I've never heard this expression, I don't think it's grammatically incorrect.

"By" is frequently used to mean "near" or "next to" or even "with".

Example:

Where's the ketchup? It's over there, by the mustard.

It's also not dissimilar to the phrase "by myself" - if "by myself" means with/near myself, "by my friend" should mean with/near my friend.

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In OP's example, the best substitute is probably "with", but in many similar usages you could replace with "beside". But you're right - OP's specific usage is a bit odd (most of us don't use/hear it), but there's nothing inherently wrong with the construction. –  FumbleFingers Sep 25 '11 at 13:33

"By" is an eastern European usage, which found its way into Yiddish.

In American English, one would say, "I was over AT my friend's HOUSE (place, etc.), over the weekend."

The French have an elegant expression, "chez," which is sometimes used in "high class" English.

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The french have a native word chez, which is used in that way - i.e. to mean "at the home/place of". It is pretty much identical to the German bei, which as far as I know is the direct ancestor of the English by - although it is no longer common in English to use the word that way. And yes, the "upper classes" certainly do borrow words from french (and other languages) all the time. The "lower classes", too. I would wager that most people who write "RSVP" on an invitation have no idea what it actually means/stands for. –  Karl Knechtel Sep 26 '11 at 8:35

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