Will the circle be unbroken By and by, by and by?

This is an excerpt from the song "Will the circle be unbroken?". I have looked into the Oxford, Merriam-Webster and other dictionaries and it seems that the phrase "by and by" has two meanings: shortly and eventually. I have also examined translations of the song in different languages and, interestingly, the phrase is translated either way. So my question is how should I interpret it (in the song)?

Actually, the problem is more general. This is not the first time, when I encounter the 'double meaning" problem. Of course usually there is a context that helps to unravel the mystery, but sometimes it is not enough. My second question is how native speakers deal with this problem? You choose one meaning intuitively, carefully study the context or leave the phrase ambiguous? May be it is slightly off-top here and I should ask about this separately?

closed as primarily opinion-based by FumbleFingers, Edwin Ashworth, Skooba, Cascabel, CJM Jan 2 '18 at 18:06

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  • If it's important (and I'm not sure this really is), you'd have to read an authoritative commentary or contact the writer etc. In this case, 'at some unknown time in the future' covers both possibilities, and the song may well 'not come true' anyway. Song lyrics are often undecipherable never mind mildly ambiguous, and are generally off-topic here as POB / not all that worthwhile researching. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 1 '18 at 12:16
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    The only problem here is your assumption that ambiguity is a problem. In interpreting poetry, the best answer to the question "Does term x mean this or that?" is usually "yes." – Brian Donovan Jan 1 '18 at 15:57

A Google NGram shows a steady growth of the use of by and by until 1900 with a precipitous decline thereafter. The original meaning was "at some point in the [near] future, presently," but the compound adverb began to take on a theological meaning, even becoming nominalized as the sweet by and by, in the imagery of the revival movement and its embodiment in evangelical hymns and gospel music. The by and by became the "distant shore" or "home in the sky" of the Christian afterlife, which this song affirms as an unbroken circle of the faithful alive in Christ.

While there might have been other factors leading to the sharp decline documented in the NGram, I would suggest that as a concrete, evangelical Christian meaning began to inhabit the phrase, the use as an adverb meaning "soon" began to recede.

As for the second part of your question, the use of the phrase in a white gospel song points to the theological rather than the general meaning.

  • There are four instances of 'by and by' in the KJV bible and all four of them can be replaced with the word 'soon'. kingjamesbibleonline.org/By_and_by – Nigel J Jan 1 '18 at 17:35
  • It would be hard to imagine Paul explaining the marvels of the "sweet by and by" to the Corinthians. – KarlG Jan 1 '18 at 18:32
  • So the translations are basically wrong. It would be better to use words that imply something about the afterlife. – InalEgo Jan 1 '18 at 19:40
  • I don't think by and by ever had an inherently Christian meaning. It was much more used in everyday speech, at least in the US, in times gone by and in writing. – Lambie Jan 1 '18 at 20:15

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