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What Does "by the by" Mean?

By N. Swensson
Updated: May 23, 2024

“By the by,” sometimes also written “by the bye,” is an English idiomatic expression that means “incidentally” or “beside the point.” It is usually most common in British English; Americans more often say “by the way” in the same circumstances. Like most idioms, the meaning isn’t fixed and usage isn’t always standard. Still, in most cases, this particular string of words is most commonly used to add an aside onto a conversation or to change the topic slightly. Many modern readers and speakers of English consider the construction somewhat antiquated, and it is not as common today as it was in the past. Linguistics scholars usually agree that it was most popular during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It is still generally understood today, but may be seen as formal or dated.

Most Likely Origins

By definition, an idiom is a phrase or statement that has acquired an understood meaning that is different from its literal interpretation. The origin of the phrase “by the by” is not entirely clear, but it may be related to the word “byway,” which means a secondary road or service road that runs as something of an offshoot to the main thoroughfare. Traveling the byways of a conversation would mean moving to related topics or tangents. The American expression “by the way” likely has similar origins.

Examples of Proper Use

The expression is most commonly used to slightly change a topic of conversation to something that may be related but not exactly the same. For example, if two people are discussing parties, one may say, “By the bye, I wanted to let you know that my son’s birthday party will be next Saturday.” It can also be used to add personal insights or commentary into a conversation, or as a means of introducing gossip or speculation.

Why It’s Used

It can be difficult to define why, exactly, people choose this expression rather than just using a more direct transition or saying something more opaque like “incidentally.” Much of it is probably force of habit or local trend. Idiomatic expressions in general can help to set a familiar or informal tone. Sports writing is one place where idioms such as “taking it to the house” or “threading the needle” are often appropriate and even necessary to convey meaning. Creative writing and poetry are other areas where idioms may be frequently used. “By the by” is usually most common in spoken conversation, typically in casual settings, but there are always exceptions.

Possibility for Confusion

Idiomatic expressions can often cause a great deal of confusion because their meanings are usually not obvious from the words themselves. Taken alone, the words “by the by” don’t really mean much of anything, at least not anything that makes any sense. Native speakers usually understand it as a matter of convention and usage, though this typically has to be learned.

The same is true for basically all idioms. For example, to say it’s raining cats and dogs does not mean that animals are falling from the sky; it means that it is raining very hard. Similarly, a candidate who is running for president is not literally running. Idioms are specific to a particular culture as well as language, so idiomatic phrases used in the United States may not be readily understood in other English-speaking countries, and vice versa.

Memorization and frequent practice with local speakers are often the only ways for people to learn and remember idioms like this one. For this reason, the use of idioms in certain situations can cause confusion and may need to be avoided. In international correspondence, for example, they may be misunderstood and in certain circumstances could be offensive. Those writing for academic or business purposes may also find that idioms are too informal or distracting.

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Discussion Comments
By anon338314 — On Jun 12, 2013

@DylanB: English people do not say the phrase 'by the by'! Maybe in Ye Olde English, or possibly higher classes, but not your average Joe!

I thought by the by meant something like 'neither here, nor there.' I was very wrong!

By lighth0se33 — On Jul 17, 2012

@wavy58 – That's pretty funny! I can understand why you would think that, especially as a kid.

I first came across this phrase while reading a book, so I could tell how it was worded and spelled. Otherwise, I might have been as lost as you.

In this book, the “by the by” meaning was obvious due to the context of the sentence. I liked how it sounded so much that I began using the expression myself. I got some weird looks from my friends, and they began saying it just to mock me, but it caught on, and it became sort of an inside joke, and we used it all the time.

By wavy58 — On Jul 16, 2012

I heard this phrase now and then as a child, but I had no idea then what it actually meant. In fact, I thought it was all one word!

I think I envisioned it being spelled “bithebi!” I thought it was some word in a foreign language that people used when they wanted to sound fancy or important.

Then, in seventh grade English class one day, we were studying idioms and I learned that it was actually three separate words. I felt pretty silly for having believed otherwise all those years.

By DylanB — On Jul 16, 2012

I remember being confused and looking up a “by the by” definition after hearing this idiom for the first time. I've always been a person who takes things very literally, and even though I was born and raised in America, I just don't grasp idioms very well.

I was surprised to learn that it meant the same thing as “by the way.” I am much more familiar with this expression, and it makes more since to me than “by the by.”

I do think that “by the by” sounds way to formal for American English. It does seem more like something one would hear in England.

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