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In India we frequently use this term as a substitute for 'By the way'. Is the usage as popular in other countries? Can someone throw some light on the etymology?

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I voted to close as General Reference but I forgot you were asking also for the etymology, sorry. :P –  Alenanno Feb 5 '12 at 18:42
    
I would say that in Britain, "by the by" is now old-fashioned. –  Colin Fine Feb 5 '12 at 22:44
    
Not in India. The two related phrases in use in India are by the way and by and by, which have different meanings. –  Kris Feb 6 '12 at 4:41
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This looks like it may be a duplicate of english.stackexchange.com/questions/19331/… –  Sven Yargs Feb 25 '13 at 19:18
    
@SvenYargs agreed. Since the answers are entirely different between the two questions, perhaps the answers should be merged? –  Kate Gregory Feb 26 '13 at 13:04

4 Answers 4

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According to Etymonline, by with the sense of secondary course as opposed to main course comes from Old English. This is also the meaning of the second by (also spelled bye) in the phrase by the by, which dates from the 1610s.

This link shows that by the way is a lot more common than by the by.

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You may know the phrase "highways and byways" - a byway or a by is (an old word for) a side road, less important than a main road.

Imagine the course of a conversation as going along a road. You may detour from time to time, leaving the "way" to talk about something else. "By the way," you might start that detour. The plan is to eventually return to the main topic you were discussing, but you need to mention something that's occurred to you and you might otherwise forget it. Now what if you detoured from the detour? That would by "by the by", wouldn't it?

That's your origin. Both "by the way" and "by the by" have now become stock phrases and can be used interchangeably without regard to whether you are experiencing your first detour from the main "way" of the conversation, or a detour from a detour from a detour...

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I saw this expression the first time on Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818), it is written 'by the bye'. It was probably of common usage in Great Britain during the 19th century.

Also it is contained in Northanger Abbey written by Jane Austen, also spelled 'by the bye'. Austen's novel was finished in 1803, though it wasn't published until 1818.

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In "The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy, Gentleman", published 1760, Lawrence Sterne uses the expression "by the bye" often, as he would have to in that meandering novel.

Here in New Zealand it is still in common usage even among school children, and my grandchildren who live in the Cook Islands use it.

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I don't think I ever heard a Kiwi kid say "by the by", but I definitely heard "by the way" (or, more recently, "btw"). Maybe it varies regionally. –  nxx Jan 19 at 12:40

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