The “by” in “bylaw”

Words about words

bylaw

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. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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