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Some years ago, after returning to New York from some years living abroad, I began to notice New Yorkers of a certain generation (in their 20s and early 30s) describing themselves or others as "from [neighborhood] by way of [city/state/country]," meaning that they now live in the named neighborhood, but originally come from the named city, state, or country.

This is backwards according to the usual meaning of "by way of." Normally, if one travels "from A by way of B," then one started at A and passed through B.

In those days, I saw this mainly in journals of perhaps lower editorial standards, such as Time Out New York and Metro New York (see Metro New York - Wikipedia). More recently, this has appeared in a New York Times article, which quotes a woman with an obviously Hungarian name and describes her as "from Queens by way of Hungary."

Does anyone know when, where, or why this started?

EDIT

A related question about another instance of this usage:

What does "by way of" mean?

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    Sounds like they are mixing up out of with by way of, hardly surprising given the standards of "journalists" these days. Queens to Chinatown by way of Hungary is one hell of a commute. out of being the originating port of a ship.
    – Frank
    Jul 30, 2014 at 18:46
  • @Frank I also never noticed "out of" meaning "from" until after I moved back to the US from Europe, but that's another question.
    – phoog
    Jul 30, 2014 at 18:47
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    How odd. I've never seen or heard that usage—I've inly heard it used logically, where someone might say they're from California by way of Wisconsin if they were born in California, lived in Wisconsin for part of their life, and now live somewhere else entirely. The usage you're describing would certainly confuse me, too. Jul 30, 2014 at 19:23
  • @JanusBahsJacquet I should have linked to another question that documents this usage; I've edited the question to do so.
    – phoog
    Jul 30, 2014 at 22:49
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    The other question is about a character in Mad Men who has a somewhat mysterious/chequered history, so much so that I wouldn't put too much faith in him saying 'X by way of Y' was meant to be factual (in the show).......
    – Frank
    Jul 31, 2014 at 5:56

5 Answers 5

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To come from point A does mean that you start a journey at point A and finish somewhere else.

However, to be from point A is to state that point A is your current (and more-or-less permanent) residence; you could think of it as being the end of your journey to find your own place to live. To have arrived at that residence in point A "by way of" point B is simply saying that prior to living in point A, you lived in point B; so the usage is the same, really, once you sort out the directionality.

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  • Nice, I hadn't thought of the fact that being "from a neighborhood" could be thought of as expressing one's current location (albeit on a slightly larger timescale). Or, I was reading it as "I'm from (A by way of B)" but it makes more sense to read it as "I'm (from A) (by way of B)." I'm still interested in where and when this usage arose, but if nobody else can help with those I'll accept this answer.
    – phoog
    Jul 30, 2014 at 19:18
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    Sorry, I can't agree. via is defined in the OED as by way of with by the route which passes through or over, there is no way via can ever mean origin.
    – Frank
    Jul 30, 2014 at 19:23
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    I really cannot agree with this. To say where you're from is—unless the distinction is irrelevant—to say where you originate. As in “I'm from California, but live in New York”. If you're travelling and a local asks you where you're from, you'll probably name your current residence, but then by way of is not in the picture at all, either. Jul 30, 2014 at 19:25
  • @Frank do you have a more plausible explanation? People are certainly using "by way of" in the sense I have described; I doubt they are using it thus because they misunderstand its meaning. For another example, see english.stackexchange.com/q/107027/13287.
    – phoog
    Jul 30, 2014 at 22:48
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    +1, this is completely correct. If I am visiting a nearby region and say I am "from X" I am most likely referring to my current place of residence.
    – MrHen
    Aug 11, 2014 at 20:39
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I agree with the poster that the plain meaning of "I'm from X by way of Y" is "I'm originally from X, but then moved to Y [and now live in Z]." Thus, for example, if you were born in Cleveland, moved to Boston as a college student, and then moved to Atlanta to take a job, you might reasonably say to someone in Atlanta who asks you where you're from, "I'm from Cleveland by way of Boston, but I live in Atlanta now."

Evidently, Szabina Bakos told the New York Times reporters that she lived in Queens but was originally from Hungary, and the reporters analyzed that information as follows: "She is currently on a subway train somewhere beneath lower Manhattan, but she is from [that is, "lives in"] Queens, which she arrived at by way of [that is, "from"] Hungary."

I don't think that "by way of" does a satisfactory job of indicating "after originating in." but you can see how the reporters boxed themselves in by committing to using "from" to mean "lives in." (In the next sentence, they report that another passenger is "from Miami.") The decision to use "from" to mean "lives in" is not inherently objectionable, but it forces the reporters here to scrabble for a way to identify an earlier place of origin for the person from Queens without getting stuck with three instances of "from" in rapid succession, as in "Szabina Bakos, 26, from Queens but originally from Hungary" followed five words later by "Lilian Galiounghi, 31, from Miami."

A more natural way to identify Ms. Bakos might be as "a Hungarian immigrant who now lives in Queens," but perhaps New York Times style disallows calling people immigrants, or the reporters didn't consider that wording breezy enough, or some other complication intervened. Anyway, at least for now, it seems to me that using "by way of" to mean "originally from" is likely to confuse more readers than it edifies.

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    It seems to me that the author if the NYT piece either isn't aware of the term 'hails from' or doesn't like it or doesn't think their readers will understand it, or alternatively wants to sound 'down with the kids'. Szabina Bakos, 26, from Queens hails from Hungary is perfectly understandable to me.
    – Frank
    Jul 31, 2014 at 6:41
  • @Frank "hail from" sounds old-fashioned and/or southern to me. I would be mildly surprised to find it in the New York Times, especially in an article written by a younger reporter (as I assume most local news articles are). Then again, there's such a fondness for retro chic in the hipster scene that it might actually be more likely, not less, for a younger reporter to use it.
    – phoog
    Aug 18, 2014 at 21:40
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    Another possibility: She might not actually be an immigrant, and I imagine the reporters didn't speak to her long enough to find out. For example, foreign staff members of the UN and of diplomatic missions are almost entirely in the country with non-immigrant visas. Also, I wouldn't say that the reporters "boxed themselves in" they were just using a phrase that has become very common here.
    – phoog
    Aug 18, 2014 at 21:45
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    I agree with this answer. There is a common trend, perhaps an editorial style as well, to answer the question "where are you from?" with your cuurent living place instead of the original birthplace. This is especially important for many immigrants. So, you need to find another phrase to mean "originally from" without repeating the word "from", and perhaps try to avoid the sensitive word "origin" as well.
    – Aydin
    Oct 2, 2014 at 8:57
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I encounter the confusing usage most often in the introduction of fighters at boxing and MMA events. There are a few announcers for whom I will give credit for avoiding the ambiguous (or wrong) "by way of" and saying "originally from". Nevertheless, few do. The way you usually hear the questionable usage would be something like, "fighting out of the Dallas Boxing Club by way of Nigeria."

I want to offer a conjecture that might help resolve the issue if there is someone who can follow up on it. I think that Jimmy Lennon Sr. may have been the earliest announcer (or one of the earliest) to employ the strange usage. That was long enough ago, that it could have entered the vernacular as a result of TV coverage of boxing events. If that is so, then Jimmy Lennon Jr. (who himself employs the strange usage) might be able to shed some light on it. Perhaps someone could contact him and get him to comment on the issue.

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Going back to the OP’s question. I could be wrong, but here’s how I see the path the people in your example took to arrive at what you consider a reversal of logic. Whether taking that path was right or wrong...who can say? It's a idiom.

“I got to the mountains by way of the tunnel.” Basic use of the phrase according to a number of dictionaries.

In that regard they could say “I got to this neighborhood by way of that city/state.” So NOW, “I’m from the mountains (the neighborhood they now call home) by way of the tunnel (their previous city or state).”

“From the seashore I got to the mountains by way of the toll road and the tunnel.”

In this regard, they are living in the mountains or they are from the mountains (now), but they got there by way of the tunnel, the toll road, and the seashore. Question is, in what order do you list these locations? Did you use the toll road before or after going through the tunnel? This could cause confusion if you’re trying to lay out your whole life and all the places you’ve ever lived. But if you pick your original starting point and your ending point, eliminating all the ones in between, you could say:

“I’m from the mountains (where you live now) by way of the seashore (your original starting point).”

At first glance this may seem ‘backward’, but the people in your example aren’t listing a travel itinerary or a biography. They’re answering the question: Where are you from (or consider yourself to be from) [now]?” The ‘now’ is implied. “I’m from the mountains and I got t/here by going through x.”

Someone who has moved from one place to another a lot, may not consider themselves to be ‘from’ their birthplace. In which case, when the question “Where are you from?” is asked, they don’t think “Where are you from [originally]?” Instead, they think “Where are you from [most recently]?”

In the example from Mad Men, the Illinois-born character came to Atlanta directly from Pennsylvania and considers himself to be from Pennsylvania (but he got there by way of Illinois).

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"By way of" has the second definition of describing/clarifying the intent or actual circumstance of something. For example, "He gave her flowers by way of an apology."

So, when someone like me says "I'm from upstate NY by way of NJ", I'm saying I live in upstate NY, but clarifying that I'm originally from Jersey.

Basically, the usage is just of the second definition, not some new figure of speech.

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    Interesting take. But I would say that "by way of" an apology means "for the purpose of" an apology. How does that apply to this example? There is no purpose or intent, just location and travel.
    – phoog
    Nov 9, 2021 at 9:18

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