I think I use this expression a lot. I notice, as I’m writing, which phrases I tend to use more often than others. It’s not necessarily such a bad thing: we can’t use every word in the language, and our use of certain words and expressions is what gives us our own style.
I’ve recognised that I like to use by the way to introduce some information that I think is going to be profoundly interesting, by casually and ironically introducing it as incidental information that’s not really important to my main argument.
Because that’s how we use by the way: to introduce an incidental, less important piece of information or point. It’s a phrase every native speaker uses without thinking about it. But if you do stop and look at it, it’s an interesting one.
It might not immediately make sense, especially if you take each word individually. But if you think about it just a little more, it’s got an interesting metaphorical logic to it.
Taken literally, it would mean beside the road or path, and was first recorded in English in the 16th century. If we consider our conversation as following a linear path, with one part leading logically into the next, then it makes sense that something that’s not on that path, but also not completely unrelated, is by the way. It’s not on the path, but it’s not far away either. It’s by the way.
We often think about our lives as a line moving forward in time, and the image of a path or road fits well into this view of life. At this point I could give you some inspirational quotes about life being a road, sometimes a hard road, that we all have to travel down, but I’ll spare you that.
We can see this image of life, or just a conversation, as a path in many other expressions. You can get sidetracked by somebody. You can talk about something in a roundabout manner, rather than just being straightforward. People might ask you about your career path, and if you’re lucky you might get fast-tracked into a good position. But if you let your mind wander too much at work, that might not happen, and then you might lose your way in life!
By the way, I hope that was interesting.