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?

  • 1
    I voted to close as General Reference but I forgot you were asking also for the etymology, sorry. :P
    – Alenanno
    Commented Feb 5, 2012 at 18:42
  • I would say that in Britain, "by the by" is now old-fashioned.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Feb 5, 2012 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
    Commented Feb 6, 2012 at 4:41
  • @SvenYargs agreed. Since the answers are entirely different between the two questions, perhaps the answers should be merged? Commented Feb 26, 2013 at 13:04
  • I often encountered 'by the bye' in a Charles Dickens novel.
    – user62753
    Commented Jan 19, 2014 at 11:43

6 Answers 6


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.


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...


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.


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.

  • 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
    Commented Jan 19, 2014 at 12:40

"By the bye" comes from an old sailing term. "Sailing by the bye" means sailing close-hauled (ie close to the wind direction). If you weren't sailing on the bye, you would be sailing large, sails out and away from the wind's direction. To refer to all forms of sailing one would say "bye and large". These (and many other) sailing terms have become part of the English language. For example 'snub' from the name of the post on a ship that you tie off the anchor and 'bitter end' from the very end of your anchor chain.

  • 2
    Do you have a source to back this up? "Bye" meaning "side current" dates back to 1801, but the expression "by the by[e]" is much older, dating back to the 18th century according to the OED.
    – Laurel
    Commented Jan 31, 2018 at 22:45

While visiting in Tallulah, LA in 1962, an elderly resident said that a house was "by the by[e]". I had never heard that phrase before so I asked her what was the "by[e]". She said that it was the body of water that ran through the town. It looked like a stream to me but she said no it wasn't a stream or creek. I now realize that 'bye' or 'by' was a shortened form of bayou.

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