The “by” in “bylaw”

Words about words


Photo: Frode Inge Helland / Wikimedia Commons
Hamlet of Vaksdal on Sørfjorden, Hordaland County, Norway. A community of this size would have been called a by or a byr, and thus its laws bylaws or byrlaws.

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

The word bylaw means a standing rule governing the regulation of a society’s or an organization’s internal affairs. It first occurred in the mid-13th century in the County of Kent, in Southeast England, as the name of a custom of settling property boundary disputes, trespasses, and the like outside the law courts. It’s apparently the same as the word byrlaw, a now-archaic dialect word in use at the same time and meaning the same thing, a regulation applied in a by or byr.

Of the two variants of the same word, byr most clearly reflects their origin. It’s from the Old Norse býr, designating a large farm or a hamlet with several buildings. The only difference between the Old Norse and the 13th-century spellings is the disappearance of the acute accent over the letter ý. Thereafter, byr and by coexisted for several centuries, particularly in compounds such as byrlaw-court and byrlaw-man; bylaw-court and bylaw-man. Though gradually outmoded, byrlaw persisted in ecclesial use in England in the specification of divisions of a parish, last in 1850. With time, the word by came to designate an urbanization (tettsted in Norwegian, historically equivalent to hamlet in English) that would classify as a city or town in English.

M. Michael Brady was educated as a scientist and, with time, turned to writing and translating.

This article originally appeared in the May 17, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American.

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M. Michael Brady

M. Michael Brady was born, raised, and educated as a scientist in the United States. After relocating to the Oslo area, he turned to writing and translating. In Norway, he is now classified as a bilingual dual national.