It is hard not to wax lyrical about ‘by’. No little word is so resourceful and yet it sets about its business with such humility that it goes largely unnoticed. It finds itself on the end of the names of humble ancient Viking towns, and also as a stylish, if somewhat starchy, prefix betokening bespoke elegance. It is the preposition writers, composers and film-directors use to sign their work and yet it is also the one used to refer to two objects that find themselves in accidental proximity. It bears the whole burden of labor of the instrumental case inflexions of more antique languages. An omnibus of a word; its most ancient origins lie in an embrace. It can even disappear completely and yet still be there, blessing us with its absent presence.
German ‘um’, meaning ‘about’, ‘around’, is a cognate of English ‘by’. We know this because, in this case, we have some flimsy written testimony. In the vast majority of cases, no such evidence exists. Etymologists should beware of mirages; but also open to the bizarre.
Both German “um” and English “by” derive from proto-Germanic “umbhi.” German took the first half of the word; English the second, as if in some indenture arrangement. “Umbhi” itself is conjectured to derive from a more ancient “*ambhi”, which is, in turn, related both to Greek “amphi-“ as in amphitheater and amphibian and Latin “ambi” as in ambiguous and ambidextrous. It is further conjectured that the “bhi” part of “*ambhi” is in fact an instrumental inflexion akin to the –bus suffix in the dative and ablative plural of third declension Latin nouns. It may also be related to ancient dual inflexions of verbs and bi- type words for two; perhaps even to being itself, seen not as one but as two.
And yet this little word with such a long pedigree and such metaphysical weight goes largely unnoticed. It is not a preposition—like in, at, and on, or to and for—that language learners lose much sleep over. It is introduced humbly in textbooks and classrooms as a means of transport—by foot, by car, by train, by plane—like the school bus driver. It insinuates itself into the mind of the learner in the form of under-the-radar colloquial phrases conveyed in casual discourse and popular ditties as time goes by. Teachers use it unthinkingly in banal classroom discourse as X sits by Y and the lesson ends by four and thus teach it without thinking. It rarely merits more than a page in a grammar workbook.
Blessed be the word by. It is quietly telling us how all teaching should be. Urging, egging, nudging, ever open to change; subtle and profound; yet never quite explicitly telling us what to do.